You Can't Just Kickstart a Science Project - It Isn't That Easy

Crowdfunding of commercial products is having a lengthy day in the sun at the moment. It has emerged from years of great success in small markets, such as the pen and paper gaming and indie publishing industries, and people are now applying the same models to fields where much more money is involved. Quite successfully too, some raising millions in what amount to well-run and timely preorder campaigns for products yet to be built. The range of endeavors open to crowdfunding of course includes scientific research, which is why it is a topic that shows up here every now and again:

If you can raise money for books, art projects, and widgets, why not for discrete life science research projects with determined goals? The LongeCity (previously the Immortality Institute) crowd have been trying this for some years, with a great deal of success considering the limited audience of this community in comparison to the audience available through Kickstarter. It is sad but true that far more people are brought to a state of excitedly opening their wallets for the development of an iPhone widget than for any sort of biotechnology project, even one that will contribute to the reversal of aging.

If you have a dedicated community, then you want to turn that dedication into professional organizations and the funds to run them. This is always going to be a messy, organic process of development, but which perhaps may be open to improvement through the spread of a more formalized crowdfunding culture. But in any case, I wanted to expand on the point made in the quote above - that crowdfunding for scientific research is a radically different undertaking from crowdfunding for development of a commercial product. This seems worth emphasizing, given that a whole range of startups and new ventures seem to be trying to port over crowdfunding into the sciences pretty much as-is, or with just a few embellishments. Like these, for example:

What we can hope for from this wealth of effort is that some groups figure out the magic formula that will make science funding work in this environment - and make it work with the same degree of liquidity and interest as in commercial projects. Experimentation is clearly needed, however.

The basic point of divergence between crowdfunding a product versus crowdfunding research is that in the former case the funders are definitively buying something concrete: that is their motivation and incentive. They are putting down money in expectation that what they are doing is submitting a preorder. Variations on the preorder theme are legion, but they all boil down to paying for a definitive item, a which will usually have fairly solid delivery date. Scientific research is notoriously bad when it comes to delivering on both those points, however. The work that is most amenable to crowdfunding consists of small projects that only incrementally add value to their fields - and which may not even do that, given the necessarily high failure rate for research.

The challenge facing science crowdfunding is the same challenge faced by scientific advocates at all times: they do their part to grow communities of supporters and encourage those supporters to pay for research work. That work will give no immediate result, the eventual result may be hard for supporters to understand, it will likely not benefit them for some time, if ever, and in addition to all of that the undertaking will quite likely fail. Science is a high risk endeavor, with few short-term payoffs that people find rewarding - and thus it is a hard sell when held up against the allure of immediate gratification, candy, and shiny objects.

But technological progress is the only thing that matters, not today's pretty baubles that are made possible by past successes in science. Funding of science has to be made to work if we want to continue on this upward curve to longevity, wealth, and expansion of what it means to be human.

Despite all of the challenges, the old messy, organic way of funneling money into scientific projects does in fact make progress. People who care about the end result, something decades away, do step up to fund science. You might look at our little community of longevity science enthusiasts for example, making noise and raising somewhere north of $14 million over the past eight years for organizations and initiatives like the Methuselah Foundation, the New Organ Prize, and the SENS Foundation. Knowing that this is possible, and regardless of the fact that it is hard, very hard, to convince people to open their wallets for science, you have to look at what's happening in the crowdfunding space right now and think that fundraising for science could all be made easier - if someone just goes about it in the right way, builds the right tools, hits the right business model, pulls together the right sort of seed community.

And maybe so. I've watched most of a decade of a small community funding research, and the cryonics advocates have watched much the same thing for far longer, but I don't have any good answers - and I'm not sure that they do either. So it is a good thing that a number of venture funded and bootstrapped groups are working on this; they'll have a few years of runway to work on finding the key to the problem, and we'll all benefit should one of them come up with a good way forward.