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Academia (vs. Industry)

Crowdfunding Research

Crowdfunding academic research might be changing, from a near-stunt to an widely used method of filling gaps in a research group’s money supply. At least, that’s the impression this article at Nature Jobs gives:

The practice has exploded in recent years, especially as success rates for research-grant applications have fallen in many places. Although crowd-funding campaigns are no replacement for grants — they usually provide much smaller amounts of money, and basic research tends to be less popular with public donors than applied sciences or arts projects — they can be effective, especially if the appeals are poignant or personal, involving research into subjects such as disease treatments.

The article details several venues that have been used for this sort of fund-raising, including Indiegogo, Kickstarter, RocketHub, FundaGeek, and SciFund Challenge. I’d add Microryza to that list. And there’s a lot of good advice for people thinking about trying it themselves, including how much money to try for (at least at first), the timelines one can expect, and how to get your message out to potential donors.
Overall, I’m in favor of this sort of thing, but there are some potential problems. This gives the general pubic a way to feel more connected to scientific research, and to understand more about what it’s actually like, both of which are goals I feel a close connection to. But (as that quote above demonstrates), some kinds of research are going to be an easier sell than others. I worry about a slow (or maybe not so slow) race to the bottom, with lab heads overpromising what their research can deliver, exaggerating its importance to immediate human concerns, and overselling whatever results come out.
These problems have, of course, been noted. Ethan Perlstein, formerly of Princeton, used RocketHub for his crowdfunding experiment that I wrote about here. And he’s written at Microryza with advice about how to get the word out to potential donors, but that very advice has prompted a worried response over at SciFund Challenge, where Jai Ranganathan had this to say:

His bottom line? The secret is to hustle, hustle, hustle during a crowdfunding campaign to get the word out and to get media attention. With all respect to Ethan, if all researchers running campaigns follow his advice, then that’s the end for science crowdfunding. And that would be a tragedy because science crowdfunding has the potential to solve one of the key problems of our time: the giant gap between science and society.

Up to a point, these two are talking about different things. Perlstein’s advice is focused on how to run a successful crowdsourcing campaign (based on his own experience, which is one of the better guides we have so far), while Ranganathan is looking at crowdsourcing as part of something larger. Where they intersect, as he says, is that it’s possible that we’ll end up with a tragedy of the commons, where the strategy that’s optimal for each individual’s case turns out to be (very) suboptimal for everyone taken together. He’s at pains to mention that Ethan Perlstein has himself done a great job with outreach to the public, but worries about those to follow:
Because, by only focusing on the mechanics of the campaign itself (and not talking about all of the necessary outreach), there lurks a danger that could sink science crowdfunding. Positive connections to an audience are important for crowdfunding success in any field, but they are especially important for scientists, since all we have to offer (basically) is a personal connection to the science. If scientists omit the outreach and just contact audiences when they want money, that will go a long way to poisoning the connections between science and the public. Science crowdfunding has barely gotten started and already I hear continuous complaints about audience exasperation with the nonstop fundraising appeals. The reason for this audience fatigue is that few scientists have done the necessary building of connections with an audience before they started banging the drum for cash. Imagine how poisonous the atmosphere will become if many more outreach-free scientists aggressively cold call (or cold e-mail or cold tweet) the universe about their fundraising pleas.

Now, when it comes to overpromising and overselling, a cynical observer might say that I’ve just described the current granting system. (And if we want even more of that sort of thing, all we have to do is pass a scheme like this one). But the general public will probably be a bit easier to fool than a review committee, at least, if you can find the right segment of the general public. Someone will probably buy your pitch, eventually, if you can throw away your pride long enough to keep on digging for them.
That same cynical observer might say that I’ve just described the way that we set up donations to charities, and indeed Ranganathan makes an analogy to NPR’s fundraising appeals. That’s the high end. The low end of the charitable-donation game is about as low as you can go – just run a search for the words “fake” and “charity” through Google News any day, any time, and you can find examples that will make you ashamed that you have the same number of chromosomes as the people you’re reading about. (You probably do). Avoiding this state really is important, and I’m glad that people are raising the issue already.
What if, though, someone were to set up a science crowdfunding appeal, with hopes of generating something that could actually turn a profit, and portions of that to be turned over to the people who put up the original money? We have now arrived at the biopharma startup business, via a different road than usual. Angel investors, venture capital groups, shareholders in an IPO – all of these people are doing exactly that, at various levels of knowledge and participation. The pitch is not so much “Give us money for the good of science”, but “Give us money, because here’s our plan to make you even more”. You will note that the scale of funds raised by the latter technique make those raised by the former look like a roundoff error, which fits in pretty well with what I take as normal human motivations.
But academic science projects have no such pitch to make. They’ll have to appeal to altruism, to curiosity, to mood affiliation, and other nonpecuniary motivations. Done well, that can be a very good thing, and done poorly, it could be a disaster.

20 comments on “Crowdfunding Research”

  1. Virgil says:

    Pardon me for saying it, but Perlstein has done a TERRIBLE job of interfacing with the public, if you count other scientists and peers as members of the public…
    As for some of the projects over on MicroRyza, they’re frankly laughable. We have “can viruses cause lung cancer?” alongside “can photons detect breast cancer?” Then there’s “can we make non-toxic non-stick cookware?” (here’s a hint, it already exists!) Some crazies think they can cure glioblastoma multiforme if only they can get enough money to buy more Amazon cloud computing credits. There’s a guy shilling to do GMP scale-up on his renal cancer drug because apparently the NCI is demanding it (if it’s worth a crap then the NCI will pay for it). Honestly, you couldn’t write this stuff any funnier if you tried. It’s a frickin’ joke.
    How long before the public gets tired of the crappy returns on this type of investment? Having taxpayers “burned” by shoddy crowd-funded science is not a good way to improve their willingness to fund real science via congress! This is a tremendous disservice to the public perception of science.

  2. RB Woodweird says:

    The larger dystopic picture has the public saying that the government no longer needs to fund scientific research because scientists can just go to the public directly and solicit funds. This is the equivalent of cutting out all government public assistance programs and directing the homeless, cripples, orphans, unemployed, mentally ill, etc. to the nearest church.

  3. Anon says:

    Comrade Physioprof has been stalking Perlstein with demeaning and cynical comments on his blog for a long time. The linked post is typical of physioprof’s rants; all bluster and virtually no substance. He thinks that he is a better judge of what constitutes good science than the great unwashed masses; smells like the very definition of central planning to me. Best to ignore him.

  4. MDA Student says:

    To you last point, I think it would be hard for the general public to get a ROI because one must be an Accredited Investor, or about I wrong about this?

  5. Puff the Mutant Dragon says:

    I hate to be a pessimist, but I have a bad feeling about this. It’s totally going to create a situation where whoever can overhype their project the most gets money. Given enough of that kind of hype, the public (or whatever small fraction of the public actually pays attention to this kind of stuff) is going to get jaded and assume all science is worthless.

  6. Sideline Chemist says:

    Crowdfunding is in it’s infancy at the moment and to accomplish your last point will require a change in SEC rules. At the moment, the SEC does not allow crowdfunding where the unofficial investor may earn a future monetary return on their initial investment. Those regs stem from the early 1900s when fake companies sprouted up like crazy to steal investors’ money and never produce anything. Those regs are why most crowdfunding websites require that the company provide something of tangible value to each investor in return for their investment.
    I find Microyza (and others like it) interesting because the “investment” is treated as a donation to the research institution. All you get in return is a sense of pride in funding research–can you actually claim that as a tax write-off like they say??? Not sure how they managed to convince the IRS to agree to that, but presumably so if you’re making a donation to an educational institution. If that’s enough for some people, then good for them.

  7. Christian R says:

    You just need to consider how strong the mechanisms are that keep the fraudsters out. If these mechanisms are weak, the fraudsters will squeeze everybody else out. In this case, such mechanisms seem to be pretty much absent.

  8. DrZZ says:

    The overall decision flow for the NCI screening program can be found in this chart. The testing is done without any charge, but NCI does not pay for synthesis of material needed for testing. A decent fraction of compounds accepted for in vivo testing are never tested because the supplier is unable to come up with enough material. In principle access to relatively small chunks of money through crowdsourcing could help. It might even help show a broader slice of the public how hard it is to get from interesting biochemical and in vitro results to in vivo activity, but believing that probably requires at least as much optimism (foolishness?) as believing in vitro cell growth inhibition means you have a real drug candidate.

  9. Jai Ranganathan here, the guy who is heavily quoted in this blog post. Nice job to the author, Derek Lowe, by the way.
    Like Derek and a number of the comments here note, there are a ton of potential pitfalls with science crowdfunding. The good news is that most of them can be avoided.
    Problem 1: Race to the bottom. Doesn’t science crowdfunding mean those who make the most inflated claims, win? No. Because by far the biggest factor in science crowdfunding success is the size of the audience that a scientist has going into a campaign (meaning that long term science outreach to an audience is the name of the game). The actual pitch made in a crowdfunding campaign is a much smaller factor.
    Problem 2: science crowdfunding ultimately means less government funding for science. This issue is real and has been raised a ton of times with Kickstarter and funding for the arts. However, as I just said, outreach is the key to science crowdfunding success. If scientists do the ground work and build greater connections between the public and science, that can only increase public willingness to fund science (via the government).
    Problem 3: what about fraud? In the end, I suspect that there will be a flight to quality with science crowdfunding platforms. To make an analogy, you could buy your books at tons of places online, but most people make their book purchases at one of a very few, trusted sites. I suspect the same filtering will occur in science crowdfunding-land, where the sites with high standards and an anti-fraud reputation will rise to the top. That’s the hope anyway!

  10. I am someone who crowdfunded research through Scifund last fall. Our autism intervention project, even being much more applied and potentially “flashy” compared to other basic science projects didn’t actually get the largest amount of funding. In fact, our applied psychology project building autism interventions was beat out by multiple basic science projects studying things like plants. So, it was not my experience that the flashiest projects got the most funding, but instead, it was about how good your outreach attempts were. In terms of avoiding fraud, people like my mom, other family members, and close friends were some of the higher donors to the project. That social connection is important for building momentum and getting donations, and will help prevent some of the fraud. No one donates to a project being run by complete strangers that has zero momentum. In addition, if I don’t follow through with what I say I’m going to do, it’s people like my mom that I am letting down. In this way, the public outreach component is not only the most important aspect of crowdfunding, but is also potentially very personal. The crowdfunding experience changed now I view community outreach, improved my grant writing abilities more generally, and helped me build momentum for a project that may have died without the initial push and community support. So, I have been converted into a believer that crowdfunding science is really about the scientists having a reason to partake in community outreach more than it’s about generating money for funding scientists.

  11. Anonymous says:

    i guess i’ll be the first to say crowdfunding is terrible, and has rarely produced anything of value. so far all it has gotten us is a bunch of lousy, low production value video games, films and other entertainment products that no one would have ever had any use for if they didn’t feel personally responsible for their genesis.
    as far as research goes, there is no way the general populace has the attention span to fund any significant portion of what the government takes care of today. there may be a few specific issues they find interesting, like Mars, climate change, the LHC, “natural alternatives” to medicine, cold fusion etc but most of the current grant material would be quickly voted off the island

  12. weirdo says:

    I’m gonna have to call Virgil out on this one.
    In no particular order:
    The NCI cancer drug is not a GMP synthesis, simply a request for one-month’s salary and reagents for a post-doc to re-make 50 mg. In Pirrung’s lab, which is hardly a joke.
    Using light to detect HPV (“photons detect breast cancer”) in tissue? Are you sure that’s a “frickin’ joke”? The guy is asking for $5K for summer intern, not $10M for a Ph2 study.
    And linking viruses to a specific cancer. Um, Gardisil, anyone?
    You know, it’s really easy being skeptical. But at least be skeptical and, oh, I don’t know, correct at the same time.

  13. Anon says:

    Sorry to be *that* person, but- I do believe you meant “general public” in the third paragraph.

  14. Denny Luan says:

    Hey Derek,
    I’m one of the founders of Microryza, thanks for the excellent article.
    You’ve touched on some of the fundamental debate going on (Ethan vs. Jai, round 2? I kid, we’re not interested in politicizing this topic), but there’s one thing here that I should say in terms of why Microrzya should and will continue to exist. What we hope to do is change the way the public consumes science.
    When we first stated Microryza, we took the perspective that there is something that objectively works about social microfinance and crowdfunding, and that there has to be a way to take the best lessons from those and apply them to science funding. There are crowdfunding platforms for finanical incentives (Kiva, Funder’s Club), where the return is strictly financial. For creative types, there are platforms that cater well towards artists, musicians, filmmakers, and inventors, where the natural output of the creative process is a product that can be shared (Kickstarter, Indiegogo). But, in the scientific process the natural output is just, more science. From the first day, our goal has always been to make the science itself, whether it’s the data, the experience, or the educational aspects, the rewarding experience on Microryza.
    To illustrate the alternatives, if you wanted to consume cutting edge science today, you would have to go to a bookstore and buy a copy of National Geographic. There is nowhere online for a typical person to find the latest research and science without it being repackaged or reinterpretated by a journalist. And of course, scholarly journal articles are great for scientists communicating with other scientists, but the real meat of what happens as part of the project, the trials and errors, or changes in design, are usually reduced to a methods section that no one ever reads. Scholarly articles are great at spreading research results, not research processes or stories.
    So what we want to build is a place for someone interested in one area of research to be able to make an impact and share in the results. Crowdfunding today is a technology, in the same way that peer-to-peer filesharing and bitcoins are a technology, where when combined with the mass communication and transparency of the internet, it has finally allowed people to decide what they want to care about.
    Now we realize that crowdfunding is still in it’s early days, and there are quite a few challenges obviously. And yes, we get our share of haters who love to think they are so innovative and snarky when it comes to unsolicited advice. In the tech world, this is normal behavior. Crowdfunding might not be for everyone right now, but we can still provide tangible value to a handful of early adopters. As long as this is the case, then we will do whatever we can to continue helping them.
    In terms of what the end game is/could be, I think certain folks are over-reacting to Ethan’s recent quotes. Things are still new, and the reason why we tell folks to hustle is because it’s just one strategy that works well for scientists who are not so accustomed to speaking up and standing out. We have no intentions to build a platform for panhandling, rather we are building a platform for people who have something to say. It’s pretty surprising though the things that scientists do once they get the hang of communicating broadly, and we’ve had many researchers tell us that it’s been the most rewarding experience they’ve had in their academic careers.

  15. gippgig says:

    What is needed is something analogous to peer review for crowdfunding proposals (not to get the proposal posted on a crowdfunding site (altho some sites might do that) but to provide an independent knowledgeable evaluation of the various proposals).

  16. SK says:

    How about flipping the model on its head and crowdfunding medical prizes. This is how science used to be funded back in the day (e.g. The Paris Academy). As long as the criteria are unambiguous and reasonable (e.g. achieving specific clinical endpoint, development of new biomarker), there is no reason it cannot be enforced using the principles of contract law.
    The crowdfunding campaign will continue until you get a person/organisation willing to run the assay/clinical trial that the funders want – that way, the prize is not too large or too small (which is the usual criticism of prizes). There is also a guarantee against the fraud issue (money is not paid until outcome is achieved). You might allow multiple participants in order to get some competitive tension going or you might grant “exclusivity” to the first applicant (who must provide proof of ongoing development or they lose that exclusivity).
    I’m surprised no-one has thought of this already.

  17. a. nonymaus says:

    Re: 16
    The problem with prizes is that they, by definition, cannot fund research since they are awarded after the results are in hand. In theory, one could obtain venture funding to pursue the prize with the prize as the payoff to the investors but if the idea is that sure-fire one could just get the venture funding for the research in a conventional pharma startup model. Prizes are, as has been said before, a life-preserver thrown to someone who has already reached shore.

  18. SK says:

    “if the idea is that sure-fire one could just get the venture funding for the research in a conventional pharma startup model.”
    Under the “conventional startup model” it’s not necessarily the best science that gets funded – VCs are only interested in drugs with strong patent protection and a potentially large market. Therapies for neglected diseases and antibiotics also struggle to get private funding under the current model.
    Also, not all public bodies will fund your idea either (which is the reason crowdfunding exists I guess) and are unlikely to fund larger clinical trials. A crowdfunded prize would help address that “valley of death” between basic and applied research by incentivising clinical outcomes.
    By leveraging a potential prize, you have a lot more options to get your funding. You could obtain funding yourself through traditional means such as a personal loan through the bank or family members. Or the existence of a prize might convince your department or funding agency to loosen their pursestrings. When there is a potential ROI to be made, finding money is not usually a problem.
    So I don’t think the best science always gets enough funding under the current model. I’d be happy to be proven wrong – but it’s a bit panglossian to think that all the most socially valuable therapies will get the optimum level of funding they need either through grants or private industry.

  19. Offended journalist says:

    It worries me that you points to National Geographic as a source for “cutting edge science”. Beautiful photos, yes. Cutting edge science…?
    And then, “There is nowhere online for a typical person to find the latest research and science without it being repackaged or reinterpreted by a journalist.” Are you trying to be ironic, writing this on a blog by a jobbing med chemist?
    (Full disclosure, as a science journalists myself, I don’t see any problem with journalists “repackaging and reinterpreting” (whatever that is supposed to mean) science.)

  20. Start A Cure at is a crowdfunding site focused entirely on cancer research.

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