As a scientist just beginning her career, the prospect of fishing for federal grant money in an increasingly overfished and under-populated lake is something I dread.
As a denizen of silicon valley who had early success when I was able to invest in Bitcoin UK, I am surrounded by people whose go-to method for funding big, crazy ideas is crowdfunding. I’ve been party to endless debates on which platform to use, whether you need a platform at all, and which projects are best suited to which forms of investment.
Possibly despite all that and possibly because of all that, I’m ambivalent — and skeptical — of using crowdfunding platforms to fund science. I think it can be done well, but it’s not the panacea people want it to be.
The elevator pitch
Thre are probably three of you who don’t know what an elevator pitch is already. But for those three: an “elevator pitch” is a 30-second sound bite that is memorable, convincing, and inspires someone to take your business card and follow up with you. The kind of thing that would turn a chance meeting with a potential investor in an elevator into a successful networking event.
There are a few weaknesses of elevator pitches: they don’t have any nuance. They don’t acknowledge possible weaknesses or hurdles to the project. And they have to appeal to lowest-common-denominator interests.
Nuance: there’s a difference between saying “we can cure cancer!” and “we can improve treatments and prognosis for a certain specific kind of cancer in a certain specific kind of patient.” One of these is a good elevator pitch. One of these is realistic.
Possible weaknesses and hurdles: One of the best parts of a real grant (I think) is something called a “problems and pitfalls” section. In it, a scientist is expected to enumerate all the possible things that could go wrong, and how they would react. It’s a backup plan. It’s immensely useful, and I think being able to write a good problems and pitfalls section in a grant is actually a sign that you are more likely to be successful. But in a pitch, it comes across as uncertain.
Lowest-common-denominator: Because you don’t know what your interlocutor’s interests are, you have to make some assumptions. There are a few things that most people will admit are worthwhile, and they’re usually quite pragmatic. It becomes a question of “how will you improve my life?” To be specific: as a biologist, this often means talking about health ramifications. Even when those health ramifications don’t really exist.
Basically, there’s a huge amount of information in a grant that just can’t fit in a pitch. I’m not saying that the best grants don’t start with pitches — they certainly do. But there’s an assumption that you’re talking to another expert who can critically evaluate what you’ve written, in all of its nuance. It’s taken as a given that at least some of your experiments will fail at least once, and that’s not a bad thing at all as long as you’ve thought of how you would address that. And it’s relatively likely that the person who you’re writing to isn’t going to dismiss your genetics project out of hand because it’s studying the mating behaviors of flies.
5, 10, 50, and 100 year returns
Probably a bigger problem — one reason that crowdfunding may not address the issues of good grants that won’t get funded in today’s climate — is the dichotomy between basic and translational research.
Basic research asks questions about the nature of the world without necessarily tying itself to a practical application.
Translational research is interested in how to directly improve outcomes and lives tomorrow.
In biology (since that’s my area of expertise) this usually means: basic research studies pathways; translational research finds cures. There are of course shades of gray, and there’s a ton of awesome research being done that is basic as well as translational.
And they’re tightly interrelated: the drugs that we are making for cancer today are based on concepts that were introduced as basic research 50 years ago.
Which means that the actual difference between basic and translational research is often not whether or not it has a practical application, but rather how quickly that practical application will become apparent, or how confidently you can predict what the practical application will be. If you’re playing the short game, looking for a five year return on investment, you do translational research. You work within the systems that you have. If you’re playing the long game, you do basic research.
A crowdfunding approach works best, I think, for translational research. For a good video, for a good pitch to laypeople, you want to be able to present a pressing question and a potential answer.
But that project is often already getting funded.
One thing about NIH funding is that when it gets cut, the first thing to go are basic science projects.
You can still pitch basic research to the populace. You’d probably have a good deal of success among certain communities. But the very fact that your research won’t necessarily have any practical application in the next five, ten, or fifteen years is going to turn a lot of people off from the get-go. And a crowdfunding venture is going to do best not when it appeals to a few specific parties, but when it has a broad reach.
The Devil in the Details
The fact of the matter is that a grant proposal is going to be more technical, and more detailed, than a kickstarter. Even if there was space in the description section to have a step-by-step technical analysis of what is going to be done, complete with methodology and preliminary data, the few people who read that far would be likely to fall asleep reading it. Pretty much the only advantage of writing a grant to be reviewed by experts is that they might actually read and could actually speak to the value of the technical details of the project.
Furthermore, often when you fund science, you fund not projects necessarily but scientists. A huge part of not only a kickstarter but also a grant is convincing people that not only are you proposing a project that needs to be done but that you are the right person to do it. For scientists, that often means having a history of technical work that can be cited to demonstrate to the grant committee that you’re a qualified researcher in the field.
But as soon as you’re talking to the populace at large and not a grant committee, things get a bit fuzzy. We as a society have a big problem with, for example, assuming that physicists know everything, and so even when they are blatantly making things up about biology, a lot of people take them seriously.
Again, as mentioned above, this is something that isn’t as big a deal among more technically minded folks (although I do know a lot of engineers who think that because they know how computers work they know how biology works, and it frustrates me to no end). But the fact of the matter is that while I can usually differentiate between a good proposed experiment and a mediocre one in genetics, I wouldn’t trust my own judgement even in chemistry or population biology, much less physics.
That doesn’t lend itself well to judgement by the crowd. It’s too easy to be fooled by a flashy, hand-wavey project which is guaranteed to fail, and overlook the modestly presented research that is more likely groundbreaking.
Salesmanship and Science
There are people who are such good communicators that they can take a basic research concept and make it interesting. People who can tap into the reservoir of curiosity and exploration in everyone and funnel it into specific interest in an impractical scientific pursuit. Those people are awesome. And they are rare.
There are also people who can take a project that should have been impossible, and with a mix of precision, determination, and patience turn it into a success. Those people are awesome. And they are rare.
The thing is: there’s a certain personality type that does well at the first one (empathetic, excitable, eloquent) and a certain personality type that does well at the second one (analytical, assiduous, precise). And while those two personality types aren’t mutually exclusive per se, they probably aren’t correlated either. It’s why the stereotype of the forgetful, head-in-the-clouds scientist lasts. It’s why most successful start ups have an engineer as well as a salesperson.
It’s why there’s a repeated, common narrative among science communicators — they go to graduate school, they do research, and they realize that they love thinking and talking about science more than they love the day-in day-out grind of science. And so they leave the doing science to others, and start writing and talking about science instead.
Once again: I think it’s possible to be great at inspiring interest in science and great at doing science. I think it would be a fantastic thing if more scientists were better at salesmanship, and if they were more involved in outreach. I think the more people we get interested in science, the better the world will be.
BUT. I also think that the most important thing to do right now, for those people who are analytical, patient, resolute, and willing to work hours to get the details right, is to actually do science. It isn’t to take public speaking classes and perfect a pitch for a kickstarter video. I don’t want someone to fail as a scientist because they can’t sell their projects. I want them to change the world with their ideas, and I want someone, somewhere, to recognize them for what they are and give them the support they need to do it.
How to do it right
None of the concerns I listed are novel. People have been thinking about them for a while. And people are trying to build platforms that get around common hurdles. For example, Georgia Tech’s system for crowd funding research projects includes a curation step which weeds out patently implausible studies. And in general the researchers who are trying crowdfunding are those who are comfortable enough talking to the general public already that they have a chance at success.
Honestly, I think the dangerous point is when the pitch turns from “some researchers in some projects can do this and it is a clever way to side-step federal regulation” into “this is the future of scientific funding and everyone should do it”. Because crowd-funding will never be right for every deserving researcher or every deserving project.
At best, crowdfunding of certain projects and by certain researchers can improve the public face of science. It can increase interest and engagement in science. It can make people feel like science is a place where everyone can contribute. Because at best, science is an equalizer; a place where we are judged by the truth of our ideas and not our popularity. (At best. It isn’t a meritocracy, there are a lot of politics.) And ideally, that increased engagement and interest will lead to renewed investment in science from many different sources — whatever they may be.