Intense competition for scarce federal research funding means that some great ideas won’t make the cut.
Labfundr, a Canadian crowdfunding platform (like Kickstarter) that caters exclusively to science and research, hopes to bring some of those great but unfunded ideas to the public to appeal for donations. The idea is that individual citizens can each make a small financial contribution, but that the effect is multiplied by attracting a large crowd of donors.
Perhaps the most well-known science crowdfunding campaign was 2014’s ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, a fundraising effort that went viral on social media and raised over $100 million in a month for a little-known disease. The pool of crowdfunded money is typically much smaller, but it could help fund a proof of concept to make the project more compelling for larger grants.
But what are the potential benefits and pitfalls of democratizing science funding?
Federal science funding overhaul is overdue
In 2017, a panel of Canadian scientists released a comprehensive report on federal support of fundamental science. Canada’s Fundamental Science Review 2017, also known as the Naylor Report, laid out a roadmap to boost federal research funding and restructure how the funds are allocated.
At the base of its recommendations is a dire picture of the current state of federal research funding. Funding for basic science in Canada has lagged behind other countries. While many labs are furnished with all the equipment they need, operating grants that cover the costs of day-to-day expenses are underfunded. In particular, early career scientists are struggling to compete against more established researchers.
The success rate for applications for funding from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR), the federal funding agency for health research, has fallen to just 13 percent.
Crowdfunded science lacks peer review
Against this backdrop, it makes a lot of sense that scientists are looking for alternative sources of funding to get their ideas off the ground.
However, a democratized selection system like this would likely have less accountability and oversight. At Labfundr and other more established science crowdfunding sites around the world, there are no formal obligations to report findings back to donors.
And just because ideas that sound slick doesn’t mean they have a good chance of working. Where federal funding applications are all peer reviewed by other scientists, crowdfunding campaigns would be pitches that might not be backed by the latest scientific understanding.
To try to balance this and build public trust, Labfundr isn’t exactly like Kickstarter – there are minimum standards that must be met before a campaign can be launched. They verify the identities of the campaign creators, who have to be affiliated with a host research institution. Any funds raised are then disbursed directly to the host institutions, and not to individual scientists.
Campaigns can ignite public interest in science
On the other side of the coin, crowdfunding not only has the potential to drive innovation forward, it also opens opportunities to bring scientists and citizens together.
To be successful, crowdfunding campaigns need to resonate with people. Scientists will need to come up with compelling pitches and communicate the importance of their research to a public audience. This kind of transparency and direct dialogue is rare.
Labfundr’s pitch is simple: to help people find, fund, and follow science they care about. The hope is that people won’t just invest in science – they will also become invested in science. As scientists make progress and hopefully share their results, their funders may even spread those findings to their social networks.
At a time when nearly half of Canadians think scientific facts are just opinions, building public interest, trust, and understanding of science could be one of the most valuable outcomes of crowdfunded science.