CrowdFunding is Boost, Not Replacement, for Government Aid in Science

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The Conversation, Lorraine Warren

Crowdfunding is Boost, Not Replacement, for Government Aid in Science

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 Univ. of Portsmouthsuggests that the practice of academic crowdfunding – where researchers ask members of the public to back their project by making a donation – has the potential to complement existing funding mechanisms such as competitive grants, but also warns 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, Cox points 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 Wi-Fi, 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 its 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

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