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Is crowdfunding a conundrum?

Posted by on June 27, 2013

By Zoe Martin, Education Policy Officer at the Society of Biology

Everyone has ideas. I have them every day.

Sometimes people think really hard about something and come up with an idea to make that something better. Many of these people are scientists.

I am sure most readers are aware it normally takes more than an idea to better the world. Even the greatest ideas require time and dedicated individuals to develop and test these ideas to create something more meaningful. And what about that all important thing that makes the world go round? Yes, without financial backing your ideas are unlikely to travel beyond your own neural circuits or the long-suffering ear drums of those within your social circle.

Crowdfunding is an alternative platform for scientists to gain financial backing to transform their ideas into a reality. It works by allowing individuals to gather donations, big or small, from many members of the public who support their project, normally within a defined time-frame. This is a very different model from the traditional one of applying for grant funding. The large number of donors also means there is less of a sense of ownership than in a venture capital project where there are large donors who might steer the project direction.

There are general crowdfunding sites that include science projects like Kickstarter, Rockethub and Indiegogo. I myself have donated to arts-based projects on these platforms. There are also more science focused platforms like Microryza, Petridish and #SciFund Challenge. Projects may create their own websites like the iCancer project, or established organisations might have their own version of crowdfunding like Cancer Research UK’s Myprojects.

As well as a way to raise funds for promising research that has been unable to secure traditional funding, crowdfunding might improve links between science and society, encouraging transparency at the early stages of research.  Surely this can only be a good thing?

Crowdfunding projects operate in a similar way to crowdsourcing projects and so ecology crowdfunding projects might achieve similar success as ecological citizen science projects, like our own Flying Ant and House Spider surveys.

There could also be pitfalls of crowdfunding scientific research. Would the campaign become more important that the science?  Would blue skies research lose out to applied research? But aren’t these similar concerns that face those applying for research grants? Some other concerns might be scrutiny and accountability. Who is peer-reviewing the crowdfunded research and who is accountable for the research outputs?

If you read the FAQ of the science-specific platform Microryza you will find that you don’t have to be affiliated with an institution to receive funding. They “love to host projects from people outside of research institutions”. They also say that projects are not obligated to provide updates to backers but they do receive incentive to do so though feedback votes.

Could crowdfunding platforms provide a viable funding mechanism for controversial ‘biohacking’ projects and should we be worried? Some people certainly are. One project on Kickstarter, “Glowing Plants: Natural Lighting with no Electricity”, that achieved funding earlier this month sparked backlash and a counter-campaign, “Kickstopper: Stopping Syn Bio Pollution” was launched on a competing crowdfunding website, Indiegogo.

Our upcoming policy lates debate tackles the issue of dual-use research and how we can maximise access, participation and discovery in science whilst preventing misuse. What do you think?



Wheat, Rachel E., Yiwei Wang, Jarrett E. Byrnes, and Jai Ranganathan. “Raising money for scientific research through crowdfunding.” Trends in ecology & evolution (2012)

Biotech in the basement

Glowing plants spark debate

Kickstarter must not fund biohackers’ glow-in-the-dark plants

uBiome – Sequencing Your Microbiome

iCancer: closing the net around cancer by getting the public involved

The wisdom of the crowd – using crowdfunding to pay for research

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