The downsides of grassroots science funding

By Razib Khan | November 17, 2011 5:17 pm

Grassroot funding for science: A good idea?

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.

  • pconroy

    What are your thoughts on Eri Gentry’s BioCurious non-profit –

  • Razib Khan

    in general i’m very positive. i’ve met the biocurious people. the only skepticism i had was about their ambition in getting ‘joe-schmo’ into the game.

  • Bee

    Haha, I started reading your article thinking, well said, I totally agree! Thanks for the link then :) I believe it’s a topic we’ll hear more about in the future.

  • Adam Smith

    Bee makes the point that the relative economic differences between the US and Europe mean crowdfunding is less likely in the latter. I definitely agree, but I wonder specifically how it would play out in Britain.

    Posted about it here:


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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