Petridish, Experiment, and Walacea are the Kickstarters of science funding. But is the science they fund legit?

Is Crowdfunded Science Crap?

Is Crowdfunded Science Crap?

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
April 27 2015 3:33 PM

Is Crowdfunded Science Crap?

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Should we be suspcious of crowdfunded science?

Photo by David Hecker/AFP/Getty Images

This post originally appeared on Wired.

A crowdfunding campaign for a brain imaging study closed Monday after raising almost $80,000 toward a unique goal: the first functional magnetic resonance images of the brain on LSD. The Beckley Foundation, a U.K.–based charitable trust that promotes research and awareness of psychoactive drugs, will use the money to scan volunteers who’ve dropped acid. Such are the sacrifices people will make for science.

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Now, it’s little surprise scientists studying the effects of illicit drugs must sometimes find unconventional benefactors—or that thousands of people would invest in seeing the brains of volunteers tripping balls. But in recent years, crowdfunding has grown increasingly popular among researchers in nearly every field. Successful campaigns have explored drought tolerance in Spanish and Indian oak species, attempted to explain jokes with math, and worked to discover exoplanets in the far reaches of space. The first crowdfunded experiments popped up on traditional platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo; now sites like Petridish, Experiment, and Walacea cater specifically to scientific fundraising.

In the U.S., most scientific funding comes from the government, distributed in grants awarded by an assortment of federal science, health, and defense agencies. So it’s a bit disconcerting that some scientists find it necessary to fund their research the same way dudebros raise money for a potato salad. Does that migration suggest the current grant system is broken? If it is, how can we ensure that funding goes to legitimate science working toward meaningful discoveries?

On its own, the fact that scientists are seeking new sources of funding isn’t so weird. In the view of David Kaiser, a science historian at MIT, crowdfunding is simply the latest “pendulum swing” in how scientists and research institutions fund their work. Once upon a time, research at MIT and other universities was funded primarily by student tuition and private philanthropists. In 1919, however, with philanthropic investment drying up, MIT launched an ambitious plan that allowed local companies to sponsor specific labs and projects.

Critics complained the university had allowed corporate interests to dig their claws into scientific endeavors and befoul intellectual autonomy. (Sound familiar?) But once WWII began, the U.S. government became a force for funding, giving huge wartime grants to research groups nationwide. Federal patronage continued expanding in the decades after the war.

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Seventy years later, that trend has reversed: As the federal budget shrinks, government investment in scientific research has reached new lows. The conventional models for federal grants, explains University of Iowa immunologist Gail Bishop, “were designed to work such that 25 to 30 percent of studies were funded. Now it’s around 10 percent.”

That’s part of the reason scientists like Bishop, who successfully funded a study of new nanoparticles to fight cancer cells on Experiment, have embraced crowdfunding. The grant-awarding process can feel arbitrary, says Bishop, and “the selection of those studies skews towards projects that take fewer risks.” In addition, most grants require scientists to provide proof-of-concept studies for their research, which makes it extremely difficult for more experimental projects to get off the ground. “It used to be that the grant money was there to do the experiment,” says Bishop. “Now the cynical joke is that you need to do the experiment first in order to be awarded a grant.”

Crowdfunding allows small-scale research to bypass the time and trouble required to draft and defend a grant proposal, and find money to cover the startup costs of a project. While most biomedical grants leave nine long months between submission and decision, Bishop was pleasantly surprised to see her campaign progress in real time toward its meager $1,500 goal.

But like all shortcuts, crowdfunding has its downsides. Government-funded institutions might be bogged down by tight regulations, but those rules can act as crucial checks on studies that might stand on shaky evidence or harm participants. (The Beckley Foundation’s LSD study is being run at Imperial College, so the researchers must follow institutional guidelines that are meant to protect participants.) Government grants also typically require a transparent accounting of how money is used, while money raised through crowdfunding doesn’t have those stipulations attached. There’s always the possibility—however rare—that a scientist or researcher may use funds in irresponsible or unethical ways.

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The “crowd” part of crowdfunding also presents a significant problem. When scientists have to shill their ideas on social media like every other entrepreneur, there’s nothing to stop sexy, sensational campaigns from overshadowing more important or legitimate studies. “You want to go viral, but that’s not so easy to do,” says Aaron Seitz, a psychologist at UC–Riverside who used a crowdfunded campaign to pay for his study on auditory dysfunction in veterans of war. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been given to Immunity Project, a company seeking to develop a vaccine for HIV, but whose scientific credentials are debatable at best. That’s money that could have instead gone toward campaigns to study autism, or measure toxic chemicals in local bodies of water.

That’s the advantage of agency-funded research: At least in theory, there’s a body of intelligent, scientifically informed individuals making the call about what research needs to get done. You can bet that the majority of funders of the Beckley LSD study didn’t do it because they believe in the scientific pre-eminence of the researchers behind it: They did it because they like the idea of sticking high people in an fMRI (and who wouldn’t?).

But that doesn’t mean that the science getting crowdfunded is crap. The researchers for the LSD study, for example, have been investigating the effects of psychedelics for years now, and their results have been published in several prestigious journals. The majority of people looking for funding on these platforms are credentialed scientists whose work will ultimately be subjected to peer review. As long as those checks and balances are still in place, any junk science that makes its way onto a crowdfunding platform still won’t get published. And the amount of money awarded to poorly designed studies will remain quite low. Common funding goals rank in the single-digit thousands—only a fraction of the size of a typical federal grant.

“Crowdfunding won’t replace conventional means of funding,” says Kaiser. What it will do is offer a chance for smaller studies to take off when they would be denied the opportunity otherwise. Kaiser thinks small projects, especially theoretical research that perhaps doesn’t require as much in equipment and staff costs, will take advantage of crowdfunding more and more. That, and probably a few more high fMRI studies than you’d otherwise see the NIH fund.

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Neel V. Patel is a science and tech writer from Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Inverse, Wired, Popular Science, Foreign Policy, and elsewhere.