Summary: Crowdfunding science is a good idea to add additional support to underfunded missions or to enable small projects. It is not a good idea to draw upon the public opinion to fund research projects from scratch. It might appear as if public money is put to good use, but that use is likely to be very inefficient and misdirected and doesn’t actually solve any systemic problem. If you must, go occupy Wall Street, vote, and make sure your taxes are put to good use.
I have a few of the same questions as Sabine overall. This despite the fact that I solicited funds in a genotyping project. The key is that if you’re going to do crowdfunding/crowdsourcing you have to be clear and precise about the aims. In the abstract I think most people understand that most science fails, but I think it will be hard to get funds if you continue to fail because you’re aiming for “home-runs.” Rather, the best option if you want to go in this direction is to be modest, and aim toward a low reward/risk project. This will minimize the disappointment on the part of your numerous funders, who are going to be more engaged and curious as to the specific result than the NSF or NIH would be.
Though one issue that does need to be pointed out is that at the early stage the people donating to these projects are not the typical citizen. I know the identities of the people who donated to the Malagasy genotyping project, and well over half of them were faculty, postdocs, or grad students. In other words scientists were funding science.
But I think the bigger issue here in terms of the “crowd” isn’t going to be in the area of funds. Rather, I suspect it will be collaboration and labor input. Something analogous to the open source movement. And just like open source software doesn’t mean that firms like Google and Microsoft aren’t eminently profitable, open source science isn’t going to replace “traditional” science. Rather, it’s going to complement.