Thoughts on Crowd-Sourcing of Basic Scientific Research?

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I meant to post this a month or two ago, but have been busy with teaching and grant reviews!

Recently, I participated in a crowd-sourcing initiative (Can thermal imaging detect torpor in Hummingbirds?) that many of my friends and colleagues no doubt saw me posting a lot about.  I cannot take credit for the efforts behind this; the initiative was started by an organised and enthusiastic group from Loyola Marymount University in California.  They were kind enough to invite/allow me to participate in the process, partly to lend expertise and support.  I also wanted to see how crowd-sourced research funding works from the inside, so participating allowed me to see.   Here are thoughts on the experience so far, Pro vs. Con (my comments below should not be construed to reflect those of the team, they are simply my reflections on seeking funding):

Pros

  • Access to a new funding source (ok, that’s a no-brainer).
  • Encourages scientists to take on riskier, but interesting research.  There could be a niche here for research that the public likes, but scientists might not actually initially consider to be novel or relevant.  I am accustomed to hearing the oft coined criticism of ivory-tower types pursuing esoteric research….at least the crowd-sourcing provides the public direct input via donations!
  • Students get to be involved in the research funding stages.  I think this is actually an excellent learning experience for graduate students, as they learn to write their proposal in language understandable by all and are allowed to be responsible for their research question.
  • You can engage the general public in science at the planning stages and throughout the research.  Experiment.com actually asks you to keep the public up to date on their website.  Ultimately, this enhances outreach and demonstrates our shared passion for science.

Cons

  • There is a general feeling that you are being overly sales pitchy about your science; I would think most scientists are comfortable with arguing from facts, rather than coercion or emotions.  Prepare to work outside your comfort zone.
  • Families and friends become rapidly tapped out so you might only get one shot at raising enough funds!  Thank your family and friends, since they will likely be the ones that support the research.
  • The crowd-source organisers do not appear to actively promote any particular campaign, other than hosting the project online.  This surprised me.  Maybe they were doing more behind the scenes we did not notice.
  • The levels of funds are usually only sufficient for small projects that likely do require some nominal attachment to already funded research, so the point above requires careful planning.
  • If asked to update the public website with research progress, there is chance of running into conflict when trying to publish the work at a later date.
  • Working with animals or doing field studies poses challenges from the perspective of ethical oversight.  Usually, in Canada, ethical approval for research comes after the funding, but crowd-source websites expect the research to be approval in principal before seeking funds.  This could effectively disqualify many from applying.

 

I know my Cons appear to outweigh the Pros….that should not dissuade people from looking into this, but I did not consider many of these aspects until we were well into the fund raising part of the project, and I think it would be helpful for others to know how to plan ahead if they speak to others who have used scientific crowd-funding websites.

 

Two final thoughts

Should research labs that are already funded really be asking for more money?  In our case, this was a novel project and association of new collaborators who would not be doing the research in the first place, wishing to pursue something new.  But what about researchers using crowd-sourcing to supplement their already funded research?

A final (but distant) concern I have is that this approach might be suggested as a free-market replacement for research council funding.  I hope this is never the case.  No scientists have the time to spend marketing their research, nor the resources to do it in a manner that would really raise enough money.  These are not money making ventures, they are knowledge generation for the most part.  A free-market approach would have the perverse effect of highlighting “popular” research, but not necessarily scientific research (think Reality TV).  My own experience suggests that the crowd-sourcing efforts was like an elaborate bake sale for raising money, where you convince your friends, family, and neighbours to fund your research!  Presumably after one round of this, chances of asking for future funding risks turning people off of science, and the sustainability in the long term would be limited.

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