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.

Read more of this post

The research game

World of Warcraft screencap by Natalie Ford (

World of Warcraft screencap by Natalie Ford (

People often say that research, and particularly research funding, is a bit of a game. It isn’t meant as a compliment.

When people say this, they are usually complaining about being excluded. They go on to talk about how you need to be ‘in the know’, about how people on funding bodies give money to their ‘mates’. Often they spend a fair amount of energy trying to work out how to game the system.

Not surprisingly, I don’t subscribe to those views.

I subscribe to the view that research funding agencies work hard to make sure that they are as fair as they can be. I believe that, while there are historical biases in most systems of funding, they do a very good job of channelling funds to the best researchers available. And that, in general, our funding models serve us well.

It is worth thinking about how the research cycle works, and it doesn’t help to disparage it too much.

Given my role, I think about research a lot. Mostly I’m thinking about the funding application that is sitting right in front of me at that moment. When I have a chance, though, I like to look at research through different lenses and from different perspectives. If you want to learn more about what you do, look at it from a paradigm outside your own.

In that spirit, I’d like to take a moment to look at three different types of computer games as metaphors for the research process. Despite my attempt to dress it up in fancy words, there isn’t anything very special going on here – I just think it will be fun.


Crowdfunding your research

Dear researcher

Thank you very much for sending through your funding proposal. You mentioned that you are trying to obtain corporate sponsorship for this project. That is excellent, and you should continue.

You might also like to think about using a crowdfunding service. Crowdfunding allows you to raise funds from the public. It isn’t for everybody and it is a lot of work but I think that it might suit your project.

To this end, I’ve done a quick analysis of your project’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) that might help you to decide if you want to try to raise funds this way. I hope that you find it useful. Let me know if you want to go ahead.

Before I begin, I should make it clear that everything that follows is just my opinion. It’s early days for crowdfunding, and I don’t have any working experience with it yet. Read more of this post

Long-term grants

Dr Ben Kraal (QUT)Dr Ben Kraal is a Research Fellow at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Brisbane, Australia. He works with the People and Systems Lab on various projects.

In the broadest sense, what he does can be described as Design Research. Ben’s background is in what people call “IT”, though he has spent most of his time thinking about how people use technology in their work and life.

His PhD was about the lived experience of people who use large vocabulary speech recognition systems in the workplace.

Ben tweets from @bjkraal and blogs at Not Easily Obvious

Chalk trains (Photo by Ben Kraal)

Chalk trains (Photo by Ben Kraal)

Recent ideas for “fixing” research grants have proposed long-term grants as a potential solution.

Nobel Prize-winning astronomer, Brian Schmidt (ANU), proposed the idea and it showed up in a Minister’s speech too.

As a post-doc on soft money, long-term grants only seem to solve the problems of established professors whose problem isn’t getting grants, but keeping their lab or group liquid for the medium to long-term.

I fear that long-term grants will turn the early career researcher’s (ECR) problem of getting a grant into the problem of getting a job. But with fewer, bigger projects about, that could get harder, not easier.


Philanthropy: Think differently and make a difference

Dr Noel Chambers

Dr Noel Chambers

Dr Noel Chambers has more than 20 years experience in start-up companies, commercial research and biotechnology. He has successfully commercialized his own research, held senior management positions in research and business development and acted as the Chief Executive Officer of a number of  biotechnology and health related companies.

In 2009, Dr Chambers’ attention turned to philanthropy where he led the establishment of Research Australia’s successful philanthropy program as the Director of Philanthropy.

He is a member of the Australian Government’s Advisory Council on Intellectual Property (ACIP) and chair of the review into collaborations between publicly‐funded research organisations and industry. 

This post originally appeared in Noel’s blog, Philanthrovate, on 4 March 2012.

“The tough truth is that the drug development funding system is broken where risk is highest.” — Michael J Fox

The drug development system is broken early in the innovation pathway. Similar analogies can be observed across most high technology sectors including the environment, energy and health. In health, this not only affects drugs but devices, diagnostics, biologics and research tools.

The difficulty in translating discoveries from early research to larger collaborative partners with the knowledge and resources to progress the discovery along the research continuum is well documented. It is often referred to as the ‘Valley of Death’.

FasterCures: Crossing Over the Valley of Death [PDF of original report (5.7 Mb)]

Traversing the ‘Valley of Death’ is not only about the science. The ‘Valley of Death’ arises because of a systematic funding gap and also because of a knowledge and reward gap. Reputation, networks, administration, the track record of the organization and research teams, as well as project management and negotiation skills all impact upon the ability to attract potential collaborators. Intellectual property, market opportunity and a demonstrable competitive advantage comprise some of the other significant factors influencing the establishment of successful industry collaborations.


Think like a kindergarten

Chinese lion dancer, surrounded by smoke

‘Lion in the smoke’ by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr.

About every six months, someone I know asks me to help them to find funding for their community group / kindergarten / art project. Fundraising is a different process to applying for research funding.

However, thinking about how you fund a community project is a useful way to refresh your thinking about how to attract funding for your research program / centre / institute.

So, in that spirit, here is a new way to look at raising some funds.

First of all, most community projects are looking for an ongoing funding stream, rather than one-off project funding. A modest request might be looking for $120,000 – $180,000 per year, every year, to keep the program running. Often, they will get started with a one-off injection of funds and are looking to move to a continuous, reliable source of funding. This is possible, and very hard work.

Work with the community

Local problems need local solutions. Most community projects are located, by definition, in a community. One of the standard truths for finding long-term solutions is that you need local input to make it stick. You can’t impose solutions from the outside. So, work with the community to build a long-term local base of support. It will be hard for them to put in the time, and you are going to have to work hard to make it work, but it will be worth it in the long run.

Think like a sports club, community orchestra or kindergarten. Think about sausage sizzles, working bees, planning meetings, committee meetings… All of these things need volunteers. Chair, secretary, and treasurer are all volunteer positions that you will need to manage your money. This voluntary labour force can be drawn from your supporters. You need a mailing list, and probably a way to keep in touch with these people on a day-to-day basis (e.g. a Facebook group). This will need a volunteer to coordinate the contact list, too!


Kickstarter vs. the National Science Foundation

A hologram of a lightbulb

Detail from ‘Parade of Holonzki’ by Ingo Maurer and Eckard Knuth.

What is Kickstarter?

Kickstarter (USA), Pozible (Australia), Fondomat (Czech Republic), Sponsume (European Union), Peerbackers (worldwide) and a host of other crowdfunding solutions provide platforms where people can solicit funds for projects. There are specialised crowdfunding platforms for music, education (Funding4Learning), and even for research and invention (Rockethub). Anyone can contribute to the projects, and it often takes more than 1,000 contributors to provide $10 – $50 each before a project is fully funded.

It is a bit unfair to compare the National Science Foundation (NSF) to Kickstarter. One has an established proven model to “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense”. The other provides a new, disruptive model that is yet to demonstrate its resilience. Still, that’s what I’m going to do. I want shine a light on Kickstarter, throwing it’s shadow in stark relief against the edifice of the National Science Foundation.

Kickstarter is seen as a leader in this emerging field, in part because one project, the Pebble watch, has attracted more than $10,000,000 in funding. Ten million dollars… that’s serious money! Especially considering that they were asking for a budget of $100,000 to start with. While Pebble is an outlier, there are at least five other projects that have attracted over a million dollars. In 2011, Kickstarter funded almost 12,000 projects.

At a very basic level, the two models are not that different. Both provide funding for projects based on feedback from external people. Beyond that, everything else differs: the underlying idea; the way that you pitch your idea; the assessment process; the budget and the grant that you finally get.

The idea is different

The idea behind Kickstarter is different to funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation. You can see this clearly in the way that they describe themselves:

With an annual budget of about $6.9 billion (FY 2010), we [the National Science Foundation] are the funding source for approximately 20 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by America’s colleges and universities. In many fields such as mathematics, computer science and the social sciences, NSF is the major source of federal backing. (About the National Science Foundation)

Kickstarter is not trying to fund basic research. It is trying to fund creativity.

Kickstarter is focused on creative projects. We’re a great way for artists, filmmakers, musicians, designers, writers, illustrators, explorers, curators, performers, and others to bring their projects, events, and dreams to life. (Kickstarter Basics)



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