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Friday, October 19, 2012

Crowdfunding science: Many a mickle makes a muckle | The Economist

Crowdfunding science: Many a mickle makes a muckle | The Economist:

This has been on the horizon for a while. As it stands, scientists have a few places to go for money. The NIH is the largest science funding body in the world, and for most things biomedical, this is here scientists go for funding. It's a government agency, so its budget changes with the political tides. And, since the money comes from taxpayers, it can sometimes have a predilection for funding low- to medium-risk projects that are more poised for a payoff. There are lots of criticisms made about how NIH funds science, but at the moment, it's the biggest and best there is. Other agencies are the NSF, DOD, DOE and other gov't entities. Privately, there is the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which is the largest private funder around. Then there are myriad disease-specific or cause-related foundations that fund research that meshes with their aims.

Many professional scientists spend the majority of their time finding ways to get science funded. In some cases scientists propose work that is fundable rather than the most interesting. Really high-risk or "out-there" science is difficult if not impossible to get money for. There is some money dedicated to that kind of work, but not enough. I think crowdfunding will facilitate doing more high-risk, high-reward science. And, for young investigators, who haven't yet built an extensive resume that can help get them big NIH dollars, there can be a way for them to get some seed money to start doing work that can ultimately be the basis of an NIH RO1 grant. In the ideal scenario, crowdfunding wouldn't replace the current funding institutions but rather synergize with them.

But here comes crowdfunding. The Economist article above highlights the exciting spread of crowdfunding to science. In brief, now anyone with an idea for science can propose their work on the web through sites such as Indiegogo or specific ones like Petridish and make their case directly to individuals. Those individuals can then send donations of their choosing. It's pretty remarkable actually.

Now, I can already hear the critics. There is a lot of room for abuse here. The average joe might not be in the best position to judge the merits of a scientific proposal. And if someone wanted to, they could fleece a lot of naive donors. That is all true. But that is not specific to science. That's true for all crowdfunding. The main source of protection is social pressure and distributed risk. If someone fools some donors once, he won't likely be able to do it again. Reputations matter, perhaps even more than money, and a professional scientist is unlikely to want to stain her good name for some bucks. Moreover, because the donations are usually small, each individual's risk is not great. So you lose $25 or $50 bucks. It stinks, but it's not the end of the world.

Anyway, I'm excited to follow this new way of funding science. I may even use it myself in graduate school if I come up with something that is interesting but not necessarily fundable in the current scheme.

What are you thoughts? Join the discussion below.

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