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Speculative Diction

Milking the crowd


You may have seen some of the articles on “crowdfunding” that have been bouncing around over the past couple of years. They’re generally positive accounts of researchers tapping into this newfound source of cash that enables them to work on projects that wouldn’t be eligible for support from the usual agencies (such as the Tri-Council here in Canada).

Crowdfunding (as opposed to crowdsourcing) involves the use of (usually) online tools to solicit funds for a project, from the “crowd”, i.e. from as many people as possible. It’s true enough that there have been some remarkable successes, which is part of what’s feeding into the growing popularity of the practice. But as usual, I’m going to be a party pooper (sorry/not sorry!) and argue that this new form of funding is a mixed blessing. And since the only criticisms I’ve seen thus far have tended to focus on the lack of prestige attached to crowdfunding (when compared to competitive grants), I think it’s time to play devil’s advocate and dig into this a bit.

To start, I think the issue isn’t (just) whether or not crowdfunding will become more popular, but rather why or why not this might happen, and what the consequences might be if it did. So what “problem” does crowdfunding solve, and how does this relate to the primarily positive attention that it receives?

I think it’s easy to see where the impetus comes from. Funding is distributed in and among research areas within universities and other research organizations, in particular ways. The agencies responsible for this funding can set the priorities, and if one’s work does not match these, the opportunities are reduced. If the number of applicants increases over time without a corresponding rise in research dollars, this too affects each applicant’s chances. Crowdfunding offers an “alternative” to this cycle, bypassing the agencies completely and soliciting support directly from the (online) masses. If the bulk of research funding is already competitive and the chances of winning are low, then why not turn to the public for support, especially when new online tools can enable the process?

In this sense, crowdfunding devolves decision-making about funding allocations, removing the organizational filter and leaving the decision to the “crowd” – it’s another form of marketization. This is important because it seems to address a primary problem of governance: the distribution of scarce funds, which has been managed more and more through competitive mechanisms.

Crowdfunding removes the need for academic peer review, which can, in a sense, be freeing. But do non-expert publics have the same priorities as peers in one’s field? While the needs of these publics are important, their members aren’t generally equipped to make the same kind of decision as someone who has trained for years in a particular field. As much as I don’t believe in any kind of pure meritocracy, I still wonder under these circumstances – what kind of research gets funded? For example while a disease like cancer “is a problem for everybody”, what about diseases that aren’t? We might also see the opposite problem – where issues that do affect many people are not “marketable” enough to attract the funding they require.

Directly related to this is the nature of the communication required. A change to the presumed audience also means changes to the nature of the “pitch” and to the means of its delivery. It could be a problem that the best PR campaign, and not necessarily the most innovative or important research, wins the day. While I agree that researchers should learn to communicate better with different publics, I don’t think this should be framed primarily through requests for donations. There’s also the question of whether broader audiences can be reached over time through proprietary platforms including widely used social media tools, such as Twitter and Facebook. Given the decay of “organic reach” on Facebook (as an example), unless your campaign catches on and spreads beyond your personal network there, you’ll likely be paying for ad space anyway.

I was reminded of all this recently when I saw an article from the Guardian UK about TED talks. The author describes a funding pitch where an astrophysicist was told he should be “more like Malcolm Gladwell”. However you want to interpret that, I think it raises a real problem with the idea of “pitching” specialized research in this way. The author argues that “astrophysics run on the model of American Idol is a recipe for civilizational disaster”; he could have been talking about crowdfunding. After all, you can just as well earn $55,000 for a potato salad party as for a crucial research initiative – that’s the Internet for you.

As Canadian scientist Jim Woodgett notes, even in the regular funding system “an investment in the future…can be a tough sell”; and governments becoming less willing to back projects that have no solid outcomes attached. Will the “crowd” be willing to step in and assume the risks?

Grant-writing for competitive government funding is known to be time-consuming; crowdfunding, especially if it becomes used more widely, would also take time, not only at the outset where new skills must be learned but also on an ongoing basis. If every project requires a publicity campaign to extract money from the public directly, this will take time out of research work. Will more specialist staff need to be hired to help, or take over, the communications aspects of these campaigns as they become more institutionalised? This process of seeking funding, in itself, could easily be spun into yet another industry. Will smaller, cheaper campaigns be able to match the successes of those that hire professionals to fine-tune the process?

What might be some longer-term consequences of crowdfunding as a means of supporting research? Not only does further privatization of funding change the process and nature of research, it could easily be used by the government as a justification for cuts to research funding. After all, if the money can come directly from the public, why waste scarce government funds unnecessarily? While this might sound like paranoia, we’re already seeing crowdfunding being used not just to launch small, unusual or one-off projects, but to generate what I’d argue is the kind of ongoing support that governments should provide (for example, research on social and environmental issues).

In crowdfunding campaigns, “rewards” are offered in return for donations; for one University of Alberta team, “Giving $25 will get donors a shout out on Twitter or Facebook, giving $100 will get a shout out with the donor’s name on a one-centimetre square chip inside the satellite” with the possibility of adding more names as your donation increases; “$1,000 will get a company logo engraved inside the satellite”. This is really not much different from the named buildings already so common on campus, yet it isn’t being decried in the same way. Rather, it’s presented as an opportunity for entrepreneurialism, a means of filling in the gaps left by the government.

It’s also important to remember that the larger public is not an unlimited source of additional cash, and some may feel that the tax dollars they already contribute should be enough. Crowdfunding for research is a philanthropic venture; when research funding becomes another charity, as we already see with massive campaigns for breast cancer (“Pinktober”) and other causes, how long before the public cannot give anything more? How much money do people have available for such donations – how far can you get by asking friends and family to boost your work? Will people still have money to give, if and when crowdfunding campaigns become more widespread?

Funding has to be sought out somehow, and most available funding is competitive in some way; the competition excludes much of the work that could be done. From that work, we will never know what insights and innovations might have emerged, and what new ideas could have turned out to be crucial to the development of a field. But it’s still important to consider the possible long-term systemic effects of any form of funding.

Yes, there are positive aspects of crowdfunding, but since these already receive so much attention, I’m hoping I’ve been able to convince you that there’s a flip-side to the deal. A focus only on the campaigns that succeed is unhelpful because it created a false impression of feasibility where there may be none. Expressing these critiques is not about siding with elitism or specialization, denying that we must learn to better communicate with non-specialist publics about the work that researchers do. It’s a serious consideration of the funding landscape and of the long-term shape of research support – because at the heart of this is the crucial issue of how we decide what we need to know, who is allowed to find out about it, and how that endeavour will be undertaken.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Nick Dragojlovic / January 5, 2015 at 19:46

    Great discussion. Another “systemic” argument in favor of using crowdfunding for research is that the alternative is not the status quo, but could well be reduced philanthropic support for research. Important donor segments (e.g., Millenials & high-net-worth donors) are increasingly focused on being able to measure the impact of their giving, and as other charitable sectors adapt to this new reality, science could be left behind if it does not do the same.

    Crowdfunding (more specifically, project- or investigator-based online fundraising) helps to meet this demand by 1) giving donors greater control over how their donations are used, and 2) providing a framework that lends itself to tracking the impact of their donations (via continued engagement with the researchers in question). It’s no surprise that universities are increasingly integrating crowdfunding into their fundraising infrastructure.

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