Here’s an idea for a new way to fund science: We can just create websites about our projects, and then ask taxpayers to vote for competing research proposals, based on which ones they see on social media.
I didn’t say it was a good idea. This is, essentially, what crowdfunding is.
I know (and also internet-know) a bunch of people who have used crowdfunding to support basic research. I’ve given to a few crowdfunded projects. I’m not a total rube.
There are a lot of good things about crowdfunding. It gets the public engaged and literally invested into a project. It helps scientists develop skills to share their work beyond their proximate scientific community. And it pays for stuff. And other good things, I suppose.
Crowdfunding has its drawbacks. Clearly there must be taxonomic and conceptual biases in who gets funded. For ecology and evolution, the dollar amounts to date are pretty skimpy, compared with big research grants. Some people have said it takes a lot of time. But that’s true for writing a traditional grant proposal as well.
But those aren’t the drawbacks that make me sour on crowdfunding. My main concern is that it just seems unfair.
Here’s what I learned from a recent Byrnes et al. paper about crowdfunding: The number of dollars that a project raises is highly correlated with the number of contributors. The number of contributors is highly correlated with the number of people who look at the website for the project. The number of people who look at the website for the project is highly correlated with the size of one’s social network.
If you have a big social network, then your crowdfunded project gets more money.
I don’t like that.
I would be uncomfortable pushing a crowdfunded project for myself or my students, knowing that it’s the breadth of my social network that would facilitate the success of the project. Since I’ve started this site, I’ve got a bigger social media presence than I did a couple years ago. I don’t think it would be fair for me to leverage this blog to get funding for science, when there are other people who don’t have a blog and wouldn’t get as much money.
I find out about crowdfunded projects because someone I know, or someone who knows someone I know, (or someone who knows someone who knows someone I know). So when I do contribute to a project, then I feel guilty that I’ve funded the ones through this route when it would have been more equitable to evaluate all crowdfunding proposals, or a randomly selected subset.
Most of public and private funding agencies are designed, at least in theory, to provide equitable access to research support. Bias exists, but at least the system is is designed with the goal of minimizing these deleterious biases.
Crowdfunding, by contrast, seems to amplify the biases that we are trying to eliminate in the sciences. It’s the enfranchised who get funded, and those who have connections to people who have the disposable income to support someone’s research project.
Let me put it this way: if a low-income undergraduate heavily worked their social network to crowdfund a summer research project, I bet they’d come up shorthanded. On the other hand, undergraduates who have more flush social connections would fare much better in getting money for their projects.
I do see that some people from traditionally disenfranchised groups might put the time and effort into building a strong social network, which then could result in more research funding. The bias for social-network-size could then trump the more traditional biases in science. But I don’t think that telling disenfranchised students and scientists to build a large social network to be able to crowdfund their research is the way to go. It might work for some, but the ability and access to build a large social network is, itself, inequitably distributed.
I know the world’s not fair. And science funding isn’t fair. But I’m skittish of an approach that seems to be inherently designed to be unfair. But there are a bunch of people I know, who have great values, and they’re doing crowdfunding. Maybe I’ll learn new things and change my mind, you never know. We all are part of so many unfair systems that are beyond our control. Maybe the freedom to choose against crowdfunding won’t be a reasonable choice in the future. I do hope, however, that taxpayers continue to rely on peer review to fund basic research, rather than voting for projects that they see through social media.