In defence of the crowd

This post was originally submitted as a comment, in response to Milking the Crowd, by Melonie Fullick at Speculative Diction.

A view of the climate change protest crowd in Melbourne

So many people II, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Melonie has written a thoughtful piece that highlights some of the potential issues with crowdfunding. It is a debate that is worth having. I’m pro-crowdfunding, but I’d be the first to admit that there are issues to be sorted out.

There are specific problems around crowdfunding, but I don’t think that lack of peer review is one of them. While government research funding is usually peer reviewed,  industry and philanthropic funding sources generally aren’t. They are competitive, but they aren’t peer reviewed. Industry funding applications are often selected by a manager or committee, on advice from an in-house expert. They are then approved by a board of directors. Some large philanthropic schemes use peer review, but most don’t. In Australia (and, I’m guessing, elsewhere), most funds are distributed by committee, perhaps on advice from a program manager, who apply a score based on their selection criteria.

Non-expert publics do not have the same priorities as peers in your field, just as industry research sponsors and philanthropic organisations do not have the same priorities as peers in your field.

Crowdfunding is, as you point out, a campaign for donations. Donations to universities for research (which include scholarship funds, professorial chairs, building funds as well as research project funds) are never peer-reviewed, in my experience.

Moreover, this absence of peer review can be recast as a benefit of crowdfunding. There are some areas of promising work that find it very difficult to gain peer support, in part because the go against the common wisdom and, sometimes, because they are reworking areas that are perceived to have been ‘done’ already. There are also some types of research, such as replication studies and taxonomy work, that find it very difficult to secure government funds. The Australian Research Council, for example, explicitly says that it will not fund:

“compilation of data, computer programs, research aids and tools; descriptive data compilations, catalogues or bibliographies; or teaching materials.”

These restrictions don’t apply to crowdfunding.

The Australian Research Council also won’t fund anything less than A$30,000 per annum. In part, this is because peer review is expensive. Crowdfunders are happy to fund small projects: top-up funds, student projects, outreach programs, all sorts of things that it wouldn’t be worth peer-reviewing via a government funding scheme.

As you point out, some researchers will be better at ‘pitching’ than others. Some will be keener to engage with the public than others. In the same way, some people are better at science communication than others. They quite enjoy explaining their research to kids and to the public in general. Over the last twenty years, we’ve recognised this sort of communication as a vital part of securing broad public support for research. It is seen as a positive thing to do, but it doesn’t suit everybody. I think that one of the potential benefits of crowdfunding for research is that it is a very direct form of research communication. Not the campaign pitches themselves, but the follow-up newsletters and blog posts that inform the supporters how the research is done, and provide a ‘behind-the-scenes’ view of research practice and what comes out the other end. It won’t be for everyone, but it will work very well for some.

Training and support programs for research crowdfunding already exist. I’m hoping to run one myself. It will sit alongside the more extensive training and support that I provide in writing grant applications and reviewing the draft applications for the researchers at my universities. Most universities provide some level of support for improving grant applications. I don’t see why I shouldn’t provide the same level of support for this sort of funding. If the funds available via crowdfunding increase, I’m sure that you will see an industry emerge, and some very slick campaigns rolled out by well-heeled universities, in much the same way that I understand there are professional grant writers at some US universities, and whole teams in Europe dedicated to pulling together large Horizon 2020 grants.

There will, however, always be room for clever campaigns to do well without a lot of funds. Have a look at some of the pitch videos appearing now – these are being done without training or support and some of them are brilliant!  I suspect that Alexandria Warneke’s rap bid for Aquatic Chemical Ecology research funding is exactly the sort of ‘end of civilisation as we know it’ that Benjamin Bratton decried on behalf of his astrophysicist friend. And as far as government funding is concerned, he is right. But as far as Alex Warneke rapping about intertidal warfare is concerned, I’m not sure. She seems to be having a lot of fun while building a constituency who are willing to support her work directly. As I said earlier, it’s not for everyone, but excellent for some.

It is true that some research will not be popular with crowdfunders (such as research involving live animal experiments). However, crowdfunding is a new addition to the funding space. It adds a new sort of funding, effectively increasing the overall funding envelope. As such, it doesn’t prevent those sorts of research gaining funds from existing sources.

As you say, crowdfunding could be used by the government as a justification for cuts to research funding. That won’t happen soon – in 2011 (the last time I compared their budgets), Kickstarter raised approximately US$119 million, about the same amount that the National Science Foundation (NSF) spent on Arctic and Antarctic Science. That’s a long way from US$6.9 billion (the NSF budget at the time). But it could happen, if there was a perception that crowdfunding was funding a lot of research.

The real danger is that a government would use growth in crowdfunding as an excuse to cut research funding. Currently, Australian government funding for research is at its lowest points since we started keeping track in 1979. They are threatening to cut it even further. The truth is that if a government wants to cut research funding, they’ll reach for any handy excuse, or just cut it for no clear reason at all (like ‘efficiency dividends’).

When governments fund research, they do so for a number of different, sometimes contradictory, reasons: ideology, national prestige, competitive advantage, and perceived pressure from the electorate. Historically, they have also increased research funding in times of war, or the threat of war. They don’t usually take into account what funds are already in the system from different sources when they increase research funds.

Likewise, they cut research funding for a range of reasons. Most of them don’t have to do with what other funding is coming into the system at the time. Bill and Melinda Gates have injected a whole bunch of funding into the US (and international) system, and have encouraged others to do so as well. The US has, at roughly the same time, reduced some of its premier funding schemes. I may be wrong, but I don’t think that any of the rhetoric around reducing the NSF envelope, or limiting specific programs, talked about it not being needed any more because the Gates Foundation had picked up the slack.

Your point about the reach of crowdfunding campaigns is really important. Crowdfunding relies on personal networks and most networks start with our friends and families. Unless we can work out ways to consistently push beyond those networks, we are effectively asking researchers to go to their friends and families for funding. That isn’t fair, and it isn’t sustainable. Some people have found ways to push out beyond those networks, but much more work is needed in this area.

At my university, students, postgrads, and art and design researchers are already crowdfunding some of their research. Currently, there is no university support for crowdfunding, so they are going outside the system. They are running these campaigns as individuals, using their own bank accounts, and doing the work on their own time. I’d much prefer to have them running these campaigns inside the system, where there are audit trails, insurance policies, and space within their workplans. It is safer, and more sensible, that way.

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About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He has been doing that, on and off, since the 1990's (with varying degrees of success). He loves his job. He loves it so much that he has enrolled in a PhD to look at crowdfunding for research. With Tseen Khoo, he runs the Research Whisperer blog and @ResearchWhisper Twitter stream, about doing research in academia.

6 Responses to In defence of the crowd

  1. Great discussion, Jonathan. Another “systemic” argument in favor of using crowdfunding for research is that the alternative is not necessarily the status quo, but could well be reduced philanthropic support for research. Important donor segments (e.g., Millenials & high-net-worth donors) are increasingly focused on being able to measure the impact of their giving, and as other charitable sectors adapt to this new reality, science could be left behind if it does not do the same.

    Crowdfunding (more specifically, project- or investigator-based online fundraising) helps to meet this demand by 1) giving donors greater control over how their donations are used, and 2) providing a framework that lends itself to tracking the impact of their donations (via continued engagement with the researchers in question). It’s no surprise that universities are increasingly integrating crowdfunding into their fundraising infrastructure:

    http://fundedscience.com/resources/list-of-university-crowdfunding-portals/

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Nick, and thanks for your site as well. It is a wealth of information and resources about crowdfunding research.

      Your comment is a good one. We could sort of think of crowdfunding as the ‘alt-metrics’ of the funding world – giving immediate feedback about impact and engagement.

      Also, thanks for the idea of crowdfunding researchers, instead of projects:
      http://fundedscience.com/why-crowdfunding-researchers-not-projects-will-work-better/
      I’d never thought of using something like Patreon to fund researchers, but it is a brilliant idea.

      Jonathan

      Like

  2. Hi Jonathan. Thanks! And glad you liked my site! You might be interested in some of these websites, which are working on different models for combining outreach and fundraising to fund researchers:

    Thinkable (http://www.thinkable.org/) – this site is based in Australia

    LabCures (http://labcures.com/) – facilitates fundraising by biomedical labs

    Benefunder (http://benefunder.org/) – this site combines sponsorship with a donor-advised fund model, which I think has huge potential.

    – Nick

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Nick

      I’m very familiar with Thinkable, but the other two are new to me. I’ll have a look.

      Jonathan

      Like

  3. L Smith says:

    Reblogged this on Funding your research and commented:
    A really interesting read. Crowdfunding is not well developed as a research funding option here in the UK. I think it should be considered more carefully by universities and academics alike. For smaller research projects with clear and tangible public benefits it is worth exploring.

    Like

  4. Pingback: Looking for funding? Think as widely as possible. – Funding your research

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