Research labs in universities receive substantial funding from governments. Crowdfunding will never surpass that. But instead of thinking about crowdfunding as a replacement for government and state funding, we must look at it as an alternative source that helps the public to influence government-supported activities in higher education.
The sort of money raised via crowdfunding route is modest. Only a handful projects have got more than US$500,000. My lab alone spends about US$800,000 per year to pay for materials, salaries and travel for around ten graduate students. So it is clear that crowdfunding cannot replace conventional funding.
Instead this is an alternate stream of funding that can allow scientists, especially young researchers, to do things differently. Crowdfunded projects often add to the kind of science that is already being done, rather than take away projects that could otherwise receive government funding.
Governments fund science for two main reasons: to find solutions to societal problems and to educate the next generation of engineers and scientists to keep solving such problems. But in recent years, the amount of money invested by governments in the US and the UK has been declining. The pool of ideas actually supported becomes smaller with little to no feedback from the general public.
Crowdfunding research allows the public to turn this around by enabling scientists to find support for projects not on the radar of typical funding agencies, yet enjoying sufficient public interest. This category of research is probably the most obviously deserving of crowdfunding and has already enabled many documentaries, research excursions, and books, often by providing exclusively ideological or intellectual rewards.
Government funding also imposes some restrictions on how students are being educated. While some of the money I receive is in the form of grants where I can diverge from the original proposal as long as the sponsor is happy, this is not the case for contracts, which often need to be followed by the letter. As these funds usually come in response to a research proposal that I conceive and that fits into the trajectory of my research, little room is left for the students’ own ideas to turn into funded projects.
Out of the box
Instead, crowdfunding can empower PhD students with direct access to funds they need to get their ideas of the ground. For instance, a project by a PhD student is aimed at turning carbon dioxide into fuel. As the government has other programs to fund education and museums, little to no funding is set aside in “research grants” for engaging in such activities as they focus on graduate education.
Here, the National Science Foundation in the US is an exception by requiring each proposal to have “broader impact”. Outreach activities at schools or museums are looked upon favorably. But these activities are always a diversion from the proposed research and therefore are only substantial parts of specific programs that are geared to support the development of the principal investigator as teacher-scholar. This requires them to think broadly about the research they are doing, that is to think about their career not only from a scientific, but also from an educational perspective.
Crowdfunding offers the opportunity to force professors out of the ivory tower and encourage them to engage into activities they otherwise could not, such as developing curricula for school students or exploring the artistic component of their research. For instance, the rewards I am offering in my campaign to create a large swarm of miniature robots are to deploy educational packages into schools or work with artists of the donors' choice.
There is one important caveat in the crowdfunding euphoria, which might also turn into its biggest benefit: the public only funds things that it understands. Crowdfunding therefore forces scientists to actually think very hard about what it actually is that they are doing and why anyone should care.
Crowdfunding should therefore not be seen as replacing conventional research funding, but as a complement that empowers the public to diverge their tax dollars, pounds and euros into projects they actually care about and want to support. No government will ever expect the public to shift totally from indirectly funding via taxes to directly supporting scientific research. But the public can use crowdfunding to influence which activities are government-supported.
With general platforms, such as Kickstarter, to specialised platforms for science, such as Experiment.com, researchers today have plenty choice of how crowdfund. Universities are also getting in the game. While we must bear in mind the limitations, the future for crowdfunding of science looks bright.