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Crowdfunding scientific research

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Crowdfunding has boomed in the last 18 months, with NESTA revealing around 300 crowdfunding sites operating in the UK alone. These sites have begun to cover a whole range of different topics, from the commercial to the charitable.  One of the more interesting areas of growth however is financing scientific research.

At the forefront of this movement is PetriDish, a crowdfunding platform for science that plans to transform the way research is funded. The site, which launched in 2012, aimed to give interested people the chance to support scientific works.  There have been precious few updates on the site since 2012 so their continued operation appears in significant doubt.

They are far from alone however, with others such as Experiment offering an alternative method of funding scientific works.  The idea behind Experiment is that – rather than rely on a small resource pool of institutional grants or philanthropy – scientists will now be able to fund their own projects using donations from interested lay people.

Both sites are aiming to broaden the pool of backers for scientific work, for instance by tapping into those affected by a disease who may previously have donated to a charity broadly exploring that area.  Now they can fund actual research projects looking to improve treatment or understanding in the area of interest to them.

Suffice to say of course, the nature of the topic creates complications in itself.  After all, it’s reasonably clear when a Kickstarter project is completed because you have a product to show for it.  Scientific research is a bit less certain.  The often long duration of a project can also present challenges in maintaining interest in the research amongst backers.

The hope is obviously that Experiment will fare better than PetriDish appear to have done, but the area still has some challenges to overcome.  The initial aim of such sites appears to be to finance the kind of early stage research that more traditional institutions are reluctant to back.  With such funding suffering due to the recession however, there is scope for crowdfunding a broader range of projects.

It’s important to retain perspective however.  This isn’t going to replace traditional funding anytime soon.

“Crowdfunding for science is great, but it’s fundamentally of a different scale than grant funding or large-scale philanthropy,” admits Sonia Vallabh, who – as one half of the husband-and-wife Prion Alliance research project - is Microryza/Experiment’s most high-profile success story to date.

“Our campaign, which raised $17,000, is one of the larger donation-based scientific crowdfunding campaigns to be successfully funded,” Vallabh says.

“Projects of a larger order of magnitude have been tied to a product. It is a different animal. It’s nowhere close to replacing those two traditional funding sources, and though its influence could grow and I hope it does, the existence of crowdfunding definitely shouldn’t take our eye off the ball of the NIH budget.”

There have been suggestions that the nature of the beast will ensure only the most social media friendly topics will gain funding.  At the back end of last year I looked at which academic papers had been shared the most, and there was little correlation between social sharing and academic citation.

This, coupled with the challenge in providing the credibility both of the research and the researchers represent the main challenges of this burgeoning sector.  It’s possible that a peer review process could be crowdsourced to ensure that the projects are legitimate and that initial findings are above board.

There are also concerns over the transparency of any funding received.  Sites at the moment allow anonymity for backers, which has raised certain ethical concerns.  A more transparent future is likely to force disclosure of all donors, and their interests.

As with most new fields, there are sure to be inevitable teething problems, but hopefully Experiment will fare better than PetriDish seem to have done, and alongside others such as MedStartr, will begin to open up research to new avenues of funding.

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