I really enjoy TED talks, as I’m sure many do, because I love seeing the new and amazing things people are doing. TED (technology, entertainment, and design) talks are talks, usually about 15-20 minutes long and given by amazing and earth moving people, recorded at international TED conferences. A couple of months ago I watched a talk given by the musician Amanda Palmer, which was entitled “The art of asking”. She talked about her early days as a street performer and how, as she performed, she was asking for money from those passing by. As she told this story, she emphasized the connection and relationship that that experience made between her (the performer) and the listener. Amanda then went on to talk about how she continues to promote that connection in her current music career. She explained how people should not be made to pay for music, but rather should be allowed to pay for the music, thereby allowing us, the listeners, to directly support our favorite artists in a way that promotes the relationship between artist and fan. As I listened to this, I could not help but think that this mentality would be useful in the sciences.
As of now most scientific research is supported by companies, government and private granting agencies, and other types of granting groups. Wouldn’t it be cool if, in addition to those agencies, there were another granting source that promoted a more direct relationship between scientists and those in the general public who enjoy the science performed? What if the public was able to read about different research projects, learn about what scientists are interested in doing, and directly support their favorites, thereby fostering a direct link between the scientists and those that support their ideas? What if people were allowed to directly support the projects they believe in, instead of giving money to agencies who make the choice? This would be a unique and beneficial way for science to progress, and it turns out there already businesses that have started to help make this happen.
Amanda Palmer has benefited immensely from the idea of crowd funding, which she did through Kickstarter. The idea of kickstarter is that artists, inventors, etc, can propose a project that people can read about and choose to fund. The proposal includes a short video to explain the proposal (reviewed by the website staff before posted), a set timeframe, and a funding goal. People are able to pledge money to the project and, if the funding goal is met in time, the money is taken from the donor and given to the project owner, who is then able to start their project. The projects are often accompanied by incentives for certain donation levels, such as a free download of an album before the album is publicly released. Kickstarter has some scientific projects, but other sites are more science specific.
Sites like Petridish and Microryza, among others, have been promoting this goal of scientific research that is directly funded by those that are interested. The structure is mostly the same as kickstarter, including an initial review of the project before posting, set time and funding goals, and incentives like having all donors’ names in the resulting publication acknowledgments or benefactor naming rights of newly discovered entities. These sites have been around for a couple of years now, and many projects were successful. Projects have included those involved in technology, ecology, and even molecular medicine. I encourage you to explore their sites and see who has been successful and what has come out of the project.
There are benefits and limitations to this website mediated crowd funding approach. Crowd funding initiatives seem to be focused towards student projects and other smaller laboratory projects. In their current states, these sites will likely not provide the robust funds required to run an entire laboratory or major research program. If you are curious to see what funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) looks like, check out their online RePORT. This being said, I think crowd funding will be very successful, and does not need to be as robust as government funding. The crowd funding approach to science will aid students and researchers in promoting and funding their projects directly from those most interested, as well as provide more direct and rewarding ways for non-scientists to get more involved in the science they love.
Amanda Palmer, as well as many other artists and technological developers, have found crowd funding through Kickstarter, and other sites, to be a valuable resource in both promoting the arts to the general public, as well as fostering direct relationships between creators and those who enjoy the creations. Such promotion and relationship building is also needed in the sciences. Hopefully, through crowd funding projects, we will see an increase in public interaction with the sciences, an increase in scientist interaction with the public, and overall better relationships between those who benefit from research, and those who perform the research.
The picture of Amanda Palmer is from her Kickstarter project page.