crowdfunding academic research?

I really like what companies like kickstarter are doing — they provide a “crowdfunding”-type platform for artists.  Artists and budding entrepreneurs can post project ideas and needs onto the web site and readers can pledge funds to help realize these projects (based on a threshold funding system).  The projects range from hundreds of thousands of dollars to much smaller ones. (Warning: thumbing through the various projects is pretty addicting.)  The wikipedia site for “crowdfunding” lists other such companies (e.g.,, sponsume, pledgemusic).

As NSF funding for the social sciences appears to be under threat, it would be great to see a crowdfunding model for academic research as well.  There seem to be lots of potential benefits: a new source of funds could be tapped, researchers wouldn’t have to chase funds as funders might find them instead, new populations would be introduced to research, etc, etc.  Lots of benefits, downsides of course too.

Here’s someone who has thought about some of these issues.

Written by teppo

June 30, 2011 at 6:07 am

19 Responses

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  1. Doesn’t this somewhat play into exactly what Coburn is trying to do? I mean, part of the critique of his approach is that sometimes science requires exploring questions to which the immediate payoff is unclear. In reading through his report, I couldn’t help but at times see both a clear potential explanation of why a project/proposal being discussed was scientifically important *and* (from without) seemingly ridiculous. So, while potentially interesting/useful for “immediate returns” types of research, I think in the end corwdfunding would lead us down a similar path to what the proposed bill is aiming at. And potentially even faster. Or am I nuts?

    This brings me to the other question I (especially as a junior faculty member) have been thinking about a fair amount through all of this – what about tenure/evaluation committees who explicitly prioritize successful funding? If NSF’s SBE programs were slashed? If we did adopt a crowdfunding approach?


    jimi adams

    June 30, 2011 at 3:53 pm

  2. Wow! I feel vindicated. When Jerry and I wrote about “all or nothing contracts,” it seemed like the sociological response was one big yawn.

    Click to access OliverMarwellCritMassI.pdf

    Click to access MarwellOliverPrahlCritMassIIICORRECTED.pdf

    But, of course, that was before the Internet dramatically lowered the potential costs of locating potential contributors.



    June 30, 2011 at 4:07 pm

  3. jimi:

    Right, I just think that crowdfunding is an interesting addition – to add to the mix of other funding sources that are out there (certainly not to replace other forms).

    In terms of the “immediate returns” point, I don’t know that crowdfunding would necessarily preclude funding for projects that are simply pursuing “knowledge for its own sake.” I think some “lay” people (obviously not everyone), potential funders, understand that. Though I do see your point (this all has a VCish feel).

    Right – I do think these potential NSF cuts in social science funding are a big issue, though I haven’t looked into the precise amounts, or how much SBE programs represent of the total NSF funding that goes to the social sciences.



    June 30, 2011 at 4:12 pm

  4. olderwoman: thanks for the links!



    June 30, 2011 at 4:39 pm

  5. At the very least, this might benefit graduate students in tough-to-fund fields, like ethnography. They probably don’t benefit that much from the prestige of the funder and need low levels of funding, a few thousand could support one summer’s worth of field word.



    June 30, 2011 at 6:19 pm

  6. […] crowdfunding academic research? […]


  7. Full disclosure: libertarian here. You can start throwing the rotten tomatoes now.

    One of the main critiques of government funding of science is that it corrupts science (sometimes in rather subtle ways). One way around this problem is to diversify the sources which scientists can call upon in order to do their work. This works also for those who are concerned about corruption from the other direction – via corporate funding. Competition tends to break down networks of power, etc. in other words.


    Gary Gunnels

    July 1, 2011 at 6:07 pm

  8. Gary – The same critique could be said of research funded by private interests, although the potential for corruption is even greater. One of the real benefits of state funding of science is that there are already disciplinary standards of accountability in place. I agree with you that it’s a good thing that diverse sources of funding exist, but we wouldn’t want to get rid of the major source of funding overnight assuming that the market for research funding will pick up the slack. I expect that those studies that have less immediate returns will find it harder to get funding, even if they produce valuable knowledge.

    “Competition tends to break down networks of power, etc. in other words.”

    We also know that many markets are characterized by imperfect competition. I think you also incorrectly assume that NSF funding is NOT competitive. Just ask anyone who’s been turned down for funding (which includes most of us who’ve applied).


    brayden king

    July 1, 2011 at 8:02 pm

  9. Why is there more potential for corruption in the private sphere exactly? Public choice theory tells us essentially that we should rid ourselves of the “romance” associated with politics and not assume that political actors exist to perform the “public good.” So if that is the sort of thing you’re claiming here, well, I reject it.

    “Perfect competition” is a model or abstraction which I think is freighted with a lot of intellectual baggage that undermines what markets are really supposed to be doing; I’m not going to get into a debate about the concept of price takers, etc., but I am going to argue that the find the concept somewhat lacking as a description of what actually happens in markets. No model need be perfect in its description of reality, but clearly some models are better than others.

    What NSF funding does is work like an all pay auction; so yeah, competition exists, but all pay auctions are problematic for a number of reasons.

    Anyway, yeah, I’d say it is a good thing if scientists find other funding sources besides the government; the expansion of civil society at the expense of government bureaucracies carries with it a nice array of benefits.


    Gary Gunnels

    July 1, 2011 at 8:15 pm

  10. It’s a well-known truth here in Brooklyn that Kickstarter is a great way to get your grandma to fund your heroin habit, I mean, your band’s new album.

    On a serious note, I find it really interesting that businesses use Kickstarter to fund projects that would normally be funded by a small business loan. For instance, here’s a friend of mine’s successfully-funded project– his coffee is insanely tasty for those of you who like your coffee with a side of social and environmental responsibility. Note that Kickstarter is not based on microlending, but giving, so this means people are donating to for-profit entities (with token incentives). This strikes me, along with the case of using Kickstarter to fund research, as yet another way in which people’s friends and families are increasingly being tapped for needs that used to be serviced through conventional market or state infrastructures. I don’t have a problem with this kind of giving (and full disclosure, I give on Kickstarter regularly, for for-profit and not-for-profit ventures), but I do have a problem with the community empowerment talk that goes along with it, since it tends to shift the focus away from the market failures and state retrenchment that may be behind much of this activity.



    July 1, 2011 at 10:12 pm

  11. Gary – I think you misunderstand how NSF funding works. In NSF funding “political actors” don’t decide which projects merit funding and which do not. In the NSF your peers evaluate the projects and those projects that are evaluated highly get funding and those that are not well received by your peers do not get funded. So, complaints about the NSF funding system are really complaints about what scientists see as worth funding. Is there potential for corruption in this scheme? I suppose so, but not as much potential as in a scheme where all projects must be pleasing to private interests, which are likely to vary considerably and which are not always aligned with the advancement and knowledge.

    So I guess my question to you is – where is the potential for corruption in NSF funding? Who is doing the corrupting in this system?

    Again, I’m not arguing against seeking other sources of funding. I just think it’s good to have an organization like the NSF where the merit of ideas can be decided based on their contribution to knowledge rather than on whether the project meets the standards of someone who has a lot of money. Is the latter always bad? No, definitely not, but I think the diversity of projects funded would decline significantly if that were the only source of funding available.


    brayden king

    July 1, 2011 at 10:29 pm

  12. So, the scientists who engage in this review aren’t political actors because they aren’t elected officials or a government appointee? Equally, I would define a defense contractor as a political actor as well. I think your definition is too narrow in other words.

    I am well aware of how the NSF works.

    “I suppose so, but not as much potential as in a scheme where all projects must be pleasing to private interests, which are likely to vary considerably and which are not always aligned with the advancement and knowledge.”

    You’re making an unsubstantiated claim here – that pleasing either your peers or the Congress or an administrative agency is somehow less corrupting than pleasing a private entity (and yes, the Congress gets involved all the time in what the NSF does – and that doesn’t even touch other areas of government funded science). One need look no further than the Congress’ interference on the behalf of luddites regarding GMO salmon to see what I am talking about.

    “I just think it’s good to have an organization like the NSF where the merit of ideas can be decided based on their contribution to knowledge…”

    Again with the unsubstantiated assumptions.

    Anyway, my comments were not merely directed at the NSF, but at all public funding science. He that pays the piper calls the tune.

    Contra public funding of science:


    Gary Gunnels

    July 1, 2011 at 10:49 pm

  13. I’m not sure what is unsubstantiated about the assumption that peer review encourages the evaluation of projects based on their potential contribution to knowledge. That is the stated and intended purpose of the peer review process.

    And, again, I’m not sure where the corruption is in a peer review system that bases merit on contribution to knowledge. I’m not really familiar with your example of GMO salmon, but since this conversation was about funding social science, I’m not sure how that applies anyway. I’m sure there are a few exceptions when Congress has revoked funding for a social science project, but I can’t think of one right now. These cases would be so rare that they wouldn’t really threaten the credibility of the peer review process anyway.

    Rather than arguing about which system is more corrupt, I think we can all agree that there are some studies that are much more likely to be funded by the NSF than they would be by private actors. This isn’t because private foundations or companies are necessarily corrupt but it’s because it doesn’t benefit them in any way to study the legislation of some 19th Century constitutional change or the effects of divorce on children’s friendships, etc. Again, my point is not that we should avoid other sources of funding. I’m all for alternative sources of social science funding, but I think it’s a really bad idea to get rid of the NSF or any other government institute that funds basic social science research because it would limit diversity in research.


    brayden king

    July 2, 2011 at 3:24 am

  14. we are trying to make crowd funding for science a reality…





    July 4, 2011 at 10:09 pm

  15. […] Here’s our previous post on NSF funding for the social sciences – and some of the discussion bled into the crowdfunding research commentary. […]


  16. Today’s NYT has a piece on scientists that are crowdfunding their research (including a link to Andrea’s site above):



    July 13, 2011 at 4:38 am

  17. […] crowdfunding academic research? ( […]


  18. […] efforts.  I’ve wondered about the possibilities of crowdfunding research (here’s the orgtheory post on that), and there indeed seem to be some successful efforts: here are dozens of #scifund projects looking […]


  19. I’ve applied to many grants (probably close to 50-60) with a hit rate around 10-20% (sorry, haven’t fully run the stats). Some of these have been through NIH, NSF, and other government agencies. A number of these grants go unfunded because 1 of the 3 reviewers thinks it’s a bad grant application. The other 2 think it should be funded. Crowdfunding allows hundreds of people to decide this, not 3.

    My concern is that the general public isn’t expert in your general field so it becomes very difficult for individuals outside of your field to determine whether your proposed application should be funded. For example, you propose a $50K application for establishing a proof of concept for treating Alzheimer’s disease. Of course, people that have relatives with ALZ will be interested in funding this type of research. However, how do they determine that your research is the best to fund? How do they know your proposal is scientifically sound and will result in a useful result, even if negative?

    It can be argued that the “experts” aren’t totally capable of this either but I think my point here is a valid concern.

    Another concern I have is transparency about animal research. This is a highly politicized component of biomedical research and could become a hot-button issue for this type of funding mechanism.

    Not expressing a position. Just expressing concerns with a funding mechanism that could make a big/positive difference for early stage investigators.


    Alan Horsager

    March 26, 2012 at 1:13 am

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