Round 2 of the SciFund Challenge is now live. This is a crowdfunding initiative in which dozens of scientists get money to support their research by appealing for small donations directly from the public. Here’s an old Oikos blog guest post from one of the SciFund founders, talking about the initiative. Discussion of Round 2 at NeuroDojo and I’m a Chordata! Urochordata!. The latter has also been posting very interesting analyses of the results from Round 1 (look for posts tagged #SciFund).
I think SciFund is a great idea, the founders deserve a lot of credit for getting it off the ground and continuing to put a lot of effort into making it better. But is it, as NeuroDojo suggests, the future of science funding? Well, there’s every reason to think it’s part of the future, as NeuroDojo documents. But while it’s very hard to say what the long-term future will bring, my guess would be that it’s not going to be more than a complement to more traditional funding sources (not that anybody’s claiming otherwise). I say that in part because massive crowdfunding successes, like musician Amanda Palmer, who raised $250,000 for her next album in one day, are exceptional. Just because she did it doesn’t mean everyone can do it. And while lots of good science is relatively cheap, lots of it isn’t. Yes, as NeuroDojo says, soon somebody is likely to break through and raise an NSF grant’s worth of funding by crowdsourcing. But lots of somebodys? Or even, say, as many somebodys as NSF funds? It could well be that I’m just a traditionalist who lacks sufficient vision and imagination (seriously, that could well be the case here), but I have a hard time seeing that happening. When R.E.M. retired, I read an interview with bassist Mike Mills in which he suggested that in future the internet would allow many more bands to attain some modest degree of success than used to be the case, but that we’d never again see a band get as big as R.E.M. or U2. I suspect something similar might be true for crowdfunded science–it might allow lots of people to pay for quite modest projects, but allow few if any to do really big things (or even NSF-grant-sized things).
I also wonder (and worry) about how a future in which crowdfunding is a big fraction of all funding would shape what science gets funded. As far as I can tell, the Round 1 SciFund data are mostly about relating characteristics of investigators to their funding success. What about characteristics of their science? For instance, are conservation or other applied projects an easier sell than fundamental research? Can you crowdfund theoretical work? Conversely, how easy is it to crowdfund the scientific equivalent of snake oil (or even just a poorly-designed or boring project)? SciFund quite rightly involves investigators sharing advice on how to market their work to the public, and yes, regular research grants also involve some measure of salesmanship. But as anybody who’s ever seen commercial advertisements knows, there’s marketing and there’s marketing. I do wonder if crowdfunded science will end up being driven by what’s marketable, to an extent that would make old fogies like me uncomfortable.