22 January 2014, 6.47am GMT
In a recent article in Times Higher Education, it was argued that crowdfunding could threaten government investment in science and research.
Joe Cox, an economist from the University of Portsmouth suggested that the practice of academic crowdfunding – where researchers ask members of the public to back their project by making a donation – had the potential to complement existing funding mechanisms such as competitive grants, but also warned that it could be viewed by the government as a way to cut spending.
If scientists are making a pretty penny from an enthusiastic public, the pressure on government coffers could be reduced. And if this were to happen, Dr Cox pointed out, “dryer” topics might be less successful at attracting money from the general public, even if they are academically valuable. That could put certain fields under strain and cause problems later on in the innovation cycle.
The growth of crowdfunding as a mechanism for supporting research could therefore change the shape of scientific development. Obtaining funding, from whatever source, is dependent on articulating what the proposition holds for the funder. Discrete, attractive projects in areas such as the creative arts, or socially valuable technologies, naturally appeal to the general public. There is no wider obligation for crowdfunding investors than simply giving money for what they like. That often means a striking new piece of technology or a project that aims to cure a disease that they might one day contract. The government has broader responsibilities. It has to fund a wide range of research in order to fuel economic growth, cultural understanding and social progress.
At a recent Dragon’s Den-style competition in Southampton, the winner, Benjamin Mawson, gave an eloquent account of his 3DBare project, describing how users could walk inside music. The runners-up, BluPoint, a system for storing digital content like music and making it available on phones via wifi, and WaterWell, a digital water management system, gave equally powerful accounts of the social value of their projects.
It would be easy to see projects of this kind doing well from crowdfunding, were they to go down that route. They address social problems or offer a digital solution to an everyday need and would sit well among some of the non-academic projects that are to be found on sites such as Kickstarter. One academic project that had great success on Kickstarter is the Flying Car, a project that aims to build a mini helicopter-car hybrid. This broke it’s fundraising goal by miles and, in the end, attracted more than £120,000 in donations. It’s not hard to see why.
The harder sell
Yet in the very early stages, the outcomes for scientific research are neither clear cut nor easy to articulate. The start of development is often referred to as the “fuzzy front end” for the very reason that things are not clear.
Platform technologies in communications, algorithms, or new materials such as graphene, for example, can be taken forward in many directions, and it can be difficult to articulate the benefits in an attractive way.
In the case of graphene, what started out as an experiment using just a piece of sticky tape has become a huge scientific phenomenon. The material is now being touted as the next big thing in sexual health, if it can be used to produce condoms; in bionics, if it can be used to make more advanced artificial limbs; or even just in everyday technology, where it could be applied to make touchscreens more durable or phone chargers more efficient. Pitch one of the applications on a crowdfunding site and you are practically onto a dead cert. But the original research might not have been so successful. If the government left projects like this to the general public, we might start to miss out on amazing new discoveries.
Over in the life sciences, crowdfunding projects do often do well, but returns on investment may be years and years down the line, so maintaining public interest is a tough challenge. The government, on the other hand, is obliged to hang on in there if it is committed to tackling disease.
So while crowdfunding may have its place, it must be part of complementary funding strategies that ensure UK academics keep their place in the science mainstream and that the funding spectrum does not shift to late-stage, close-to-market business models.