Research funding has had more than a few trust issues lately. From claims that federally funded research is being used to promote partisan agendas to reports that privately funded data has been suppressed, the public might easily question whose interests are represented by any given study. The answer to such a dilemma, however, could lie in the ability of individuals to support selected research themselves.
While crowdfunding isn’t a new concept, there’s some indication that it’s beginning to become more popular for scientific undertakings. Take, for example, a recent proposal to conduct an independent environmental study of the impacts of a mining dam break in Brazil.
The break—which killed 11 people and sent more than 13 billion gallons of toxic sludge oozing 300 miles to the Atlantic Ocean—was a catastrophe of tremendous proportions and Brazilians were less than certain that the closely allied mining industry and regulatory agencies would respond appropriately.
“Could it be that this tragedy would bring any lessons for our governors and legislators?” Maurico Guetta, a lawyer for Instituto Socioambiental is quoted as asking by The Guardian. “Unfortunately, there seems to be no sign of that.”
Guetta wasn’t alone in his doubts. Soon after the breach, a collaborative of scientists organized as The Independent Evaluation Group of the Environmental Impact Assessment (GIAIA) and began a funding campaign to conduct the independent study.
The group cited the “vague position” of the public institutions and the economic connections of those involved as reasons why an independent study was so important, according to a rough translation of the campaign’s proposal. The public apparently agreed—within two weeks, more than 1,100 people had contributed to the effort, putting the amount collected at more than 144 percent of the original $13,300 goal.
The need to conduct independent research isn’t the only reason to turn to crowdsourcing, though. In other cases, scientists might simply be looking to fill the gaps in traditional funding, according to SciDevNet website.
“When I launched the crowdfunding campaign, I was on the brink of shutting down the laboratory and sending home a team of 14,” Brazilian neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel of the Federal University of Rio de Janiero told SciDevNet. “The success of the campaign shows that the general public cares about science, and it sends a powerful message to the government.”
Those messages can be helpful, but plugging projects on sites like Kickstarter or Experiment.com isn’t without drawbacks. The most obvious is the fact that the public has different criteria for research than that of traditional funders—they might not be as picky about credentials and methodology and trendier topics often fare best, according to an article in Wired.
Still, making science more appealing to the populace might not be a bad thing, Imran Khan, chief executive of the British Science Association told The Guardian. And in time, the public could come to be more discerning, as well.
“If crowdfunding does become an appreciable part of the mix down the road then we might see more scientists deliberately thinking up projects that would have a direct public appeal,” he said. “But equally it might change how the public sees science. Scientists might become better at explaining the value of research that’s happening anyway, and non-scientists might become better at tuning in to it.”