Will research crowdfunding take off?

By Ben Crase

University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson became infamous this past fall after releasing a video series where he outlines his objections to the Canadian government’s Bill C-16. Outside the media spotlight, Peterson submitted a grant proposal to SSHRC to support the continuation of his research, which was not funded. A few days after Peterson made the rejection public, he set up a webpage on Indiegogo.com, a popular crowdfunding site typically used by tech startups, artists, and community initiatives. The creation of the page was announced in a single tweet and in less than 24 hours met the first year funding requirement. At the time of writing, 2322 backers have contributed a total $164,004, over two years’ worth of funding.

The success of Peterson’s crowdfunding initiative gives us reason to pause and consider the implications of this recent phenomenon for academic research. With government research budgets not meeting growing demand for funding, a growing number of researchers around the world are turning to various emerging crowdfunding platforms designed specifically to raise funds for academic research projects.

Is crowdfunding a viable alternative?

Screen Shot 2017-04-30 at 8.39.14 PMThe success of these platforms to date is relatively modest. Experiment, one of the leading platforms, has funded 688 projects totalling $7,301,841 (USD) at various top American universities. Some platforms target specific disciplines such as DigVentures,  which provides an array of services to specifically promote crowdfunding for archaeological research around the world.

Peterson’s story presents the most compelling example of crowdfunding’s disruptive potential for research funding to date. The idea that a professor could raise close to $100,000 for psychometric lab research overnight was laughable a month ago. Now it is seemingly plausible to imagine researchers wholly reliant on crowdfunding to raise research funds in the near future. Instead of writing endless grant applications, researchers would invest their time making videos to pitch their research to the public and communicate regularly with their backers through social media.

This marketization of research would also become more transactional in nature, with academics promising something to incentivize backer support. Those who contributed over $1,000 to Peterson’s campaign will receive a bound and signed copy of his research and an invitation to a special reception.

Hype and reality

Although the prospective implications of these changes appear dramatic, in higher education such innovations rarely live up to the hype.

Only a few short years ago, massive open online course (MOOCs) were heralded as a disruptive innovation that would forever change the landscape of higher education. Journalists and academics alike announced the imminent “end,” “avalanche,” “revolution,” or “tectonic shift” that promised to be the biggest change to higher education since the printing press. More than five years after this hype reached its apogee, discussion of MOOCs returned from the stratosphere, not yet equipped with the signalling legitimacy of degrees from established institutions.

Crowdfunding research faces similar challenges that hinder its ability to meaningfully ‘disrupt’ the unique functioning of higher education systems. While some entrepreneurial researchers have been able to find ways to monetize their research to gain public support, research cannot or should not be determined by such utilitarian considerations. With no indication that the public’s willingness to support research has changed considerably, the government’s role in broadly supporting research also remains essential.

Even if a research funding system were more reliant on allocating funds from crowdfunding, it would be destined to replicate the same social biases that already influence the allocation of funding from federal research agencies. Just as it is more politically palatable for the government to support cancer research over basic science or the study medieval manuscripts, a disaggregated public would privilege the most fashionable research, further politicizing the process without the mediating influence of peer review. Empowering individual choice would also likely amplify inequalities in the distribution of research funding between different fields of study. Peterson’s unprecedented crowdfunding success relative to all other efforts to date highlights how dramatic such imbalances could be.

Looking ahead

As demonstrated by the Peterson case, crowdfunding has introduced a unique tool to mobilize support for academic research that has the capacity to provide an alternative to researchers who feel wronged or unsupported by established procedures. With the technologies of the ‘digital revolution’ necessitating greater transparency and engagement between individuals, maybe it was only a matter of time before these trends began making inroads in research funding processes.

Given the successful adoption of crowdfunding by some in higher education, it is easy to imagine how this technology might transform the future landscape of research funding. A more probable future will see some of the innovations introduced by crowdfunding, such as greater transparency in the review process, new expectations for researcher-community engagement, or other more entrepreneurial attitudes incorporated into existing practices, reflecting how technology is influencing many of our changing societal expectations. The recent creation of SSHRC’s Storytellers contest could be described as an early example of how research communication will be shaped by developments from the worlds of technology and entrepreneurship.

Although such predictions make for less exciting headlines, it should not deflate our interest in observing how technological innovations uniquely manifest in the ivory tower, facilitating change while also ensuring that many things stay the same.

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