Could Crowdfunding Rejuvenate Science?

May 23, 2014

Thinkable.org uses the story of MBL researcher Osamu Shimomura's Nobel Prize winning research to make its case for funding high-risk research.
Credit Thinkable.org

Ben McNeil thinks our science funding mechanism is fundamentally broken. Here’s why, and what he thinks we should do about it.

Dr. Ben McNeil is a Senior Lecturer and Research Fellow with the Climate Change Research Center at University of New South Wales, in Australia. In addition to his research on how greenhouse gases are impacting the ocean and the economics of our energy systems, Ben is interested in big questions about how science gets done. He’s currently finishing his second book, ShortThink, exploring the causes of short-term thinking. He’s also founder of Thinkable.org, a crowdfunding website aimed at supporting innovative research that is too risky to secure funding through traditional avenues.

Why do you think the funding model for scientific research is broken? 

The funding model for research relies mostly on government science agencies and a little bit of private philanthropy.  The hidden processes, namely anonymous peer-review, in place to fund research this way inadvertently creates large biases against either younger researchers and/or risky, ground-breaking transformational ideas.   This unfortunately has pushed the entire research ecosystem towards safer, incremental research with known short-term outcomes.  We need to give researchers - particularly young researchers - freedom again to push the boundaries of thinking rather than pursue safe, short-term projects. 

Is the situation worse than it was, say, a decade ago? Or fifty years ago? How and why?

This wasn't the case thirty years ago.  Back then, researchers were given very modest funds, but were given total creative freedom to pursue big ideas. Your publication record had no role in allocating research funding. Today however, the competitive granting system is dominated by researchers’ track records and publication rates. This creates a situation where young researchers are inherently less competitive, despite knowing that the biggest discoveries for humanity are dominated by researchers younger than forty. Even for experienced researchers, the publication obsession means that scientists think in terms of publications not in terms of innovation anymore. This is hugely problematic. 

How can crowdfunding help address this situation?

By connecting with individuals and organizations to engage, fund and track research is a powerful way to give researchers a degree of freedom or autonomy outside the conventional system and to fund unthinkable ideas and young researchers once again.  

To date, crowdfunding has provided relatively small amounts of money for pilot projects or small-scale research. Could crowdfunding realistically replace federal grant funding?

Government funding of science has and always will be important, particularly for incremental projects from established researchers. But big science does not mean innovative science. Small pods of seed funding for projects are hugely important for innovation. Existing crowd-funding sites for science have simply taken the kickstarter.com project-based model and assumed it will work for science. We have built a new platform called Thinkable.org that is very different as we allow the researcher to showcase all of their activities in an ongoing way (not just one project) and then partner with research organizations and private industries to take funding to more meaningful levels to support researchers. 

Part of the rationale behind the federal funding model is that everyone pays in a small amount and experts make the decisions about what deserves funding. What are the risks if we turn over decision-making about what research is deserving to the public? 

That is part of the problem.  Peer review is really important for assessing research that has been done, but poor at allocating funds to the most innovative future ideas.  Richard Feynman famously said 'Science is a belief in the ignorance of experts,' yet we exclusively rely on anonymous panels of senior experts who tend to reject ideas that seem impossible or crazy to pursue.  Nobel Prize winning discoveries for example, come from those ideas that seem crazy or impossible at the time.  This is the dilemma we face in science, the dilemma of funding innovative researchers pursuing ideas that push the boundaries of thinking.  Through crowd-funding, researchers are empowered to find supporters for their ideas rejected through conventional means, and if they find support via the public, then that is great for all of us, since some of them will turn into a big new discovery.

What are the potential rewards? 

The social currency of doing science is discovery, which can then lead to developments that help our world/lives.  We should allow anyone to benefit from the rewards of helping fund those discoveries and at thinkable.org we think that will help take research partnerships/funding to a new level. Aside from discovery itself, the process of doing research is fascinating, which is where we allow people to engage and follow research in real-time. 

How are scientists responding to your ideas? 

We've been getting a lot of interest from research organizations and researchers all over the world - from cancer research organizations in Chicago to biology lab's in the UK, universities in South Africa to climate labs in Sydney. It's a very new concept but as a mid-career researcher, I've always felt constrained with how we engage and showcase the work we do with the world.   The more we open up and give people an opportunity to peer into the magical world of cutting-edge research, I think a whole new world of support will open up. That is our primary mission at thinkable.org, to connect the world with research.  Its success depends on creating a platform that researchers love and enjoy using, so we're really keen to hear from all researchers before and after we soft-launch next month.