7/3/14

Democratizing science philanthropy

An important trend has been emerging in the area of scientific research funding. In recent years, there has been a notable increase in the share of private philanthropic support for the sciences. For those who aren’t familiar, this is more commonly referred to as “science philanthropy”. Deep-pocketed philanthropists fund large-scale efforts to further our understanding of things like the human brain to various types of cancers. A recent study by MIT researchers estimate philanthropic contributions to be at least 30% of total research funding at the top US research institutions.

While this type of funding is vital for science in times of government cut backs and fierce political debates, concerns around these types of large-scale funding chasing only the “popular, well known” science research topics leaves more to be desired.

Enter the era of crowdfunding.

As crowdfunding proliferates across a number of applications – from creative projects to life-saving medical treatments, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that this is also being tried for scientific research. While straightforward in its mechanics, the inherent bottom-up and community-centric qualities of crowdfunding present two enormous opportunities. One, it gives everybody a voice to become a patron of science, and two, it encourages all scientists to tangibly communicate the importance of their research to the broader public to garner support.

Because crowdfunding inherently creates a system that channels a large number of small donations to specific research efforts, it presents a framework that mirrors that of traditional science philanthropy (which is more top-down). While crowdfunded donations are comparatively tiny, and may only be enough to fund smaller “seed” projects, we miss out on the larger potential if we focus only on the dollars and cents. Aside from the obvious benefits of helping to fill the research funding gap, crowdfunding for science creates something that’s much more valuable – that is, the voices and attention of the broader public putting their money where their mouth is.

Once crowdfunding for science matures along a similar trajectory as that of other crowdfunding verticals, we should begin to see many unique communities pop-up around a gamut of scientific topics. Often times these are not the same topics you’d normally read or hear about in the mainstream media. Successfully crowdfunding a research project will be as much about the intrigue and potential for discovery, as about education and communication of the research’s value to society.

How traditional science philanthropists respond to the science crowdfunding phenomenon will be the most interesting to observe. As a more diverse set of research questions are illuminated through the crowd, the cost of sourcing this wider array of research projects drops substantially. Traditional science philanthropists may choose to use these communities as possible “signals” to inform and diversify their funding allocation decisions – also bringing back an element of the patron-scientist dynamic from the days of Galileo and the telescope. Whether they choose to use this information to devise new matched funding structures, for research lead generation, or for something else all together, there are many opportunities to be innovative.

Through crowdfunding, the profile of a science philanthropist can be re-imagined to encompass virtually anyone. By coordinating and combining the voices of the many, with the resources of the few, there is the potential to create a new method of science philanthropy. This type of integration leaves me optimistic that scientific discoveries can be accelerated – perhaps, where least expected.