By Joern Fischer
Perhaps triggered by a frustrating funding application I’m currently preparing, it’s a good time to think about where our research money is coming from. Mostly from ‘conventional’ sources at this stage. Like national science agencies, government ministries, and so on. Public money, basically.
There’s two potential problems with this source of ‘research income’. One, many of the established funding agencies are highly disciplinary — so if you (like me) believe that inter- or even transdisciplinary research is needed to foster sustainability, then those traditional sources may not be the right ones to turn to for cash. However, at present, they’re the most prestigious, so there seem to be incentives to go for national science agency money over and above other sources of money. Second, those sources sometimes are very bureaucratic in how they operate, and a huge amount of work (and sometimes a low rate of success).
Scientists elsewhere are beginning to explore a new avenue called ‘crowd-funding’. It’s internet based money-hunting, where you ‘sell’ your project to whoever visits the website, and then they may give you money in return. A friend of mine, Jai Ranganathan, recently co-initiated the #SciFund Challenge. In six weeks, they tried to raise as much money for science as possible. Scientists could sign up to participate, and so ultimately, the sum of money was split among scientists — but in total they received $75000. For a trial, arguably, not bad. In fact, the trend of this type of ‘crowd funding’ was deemed interesting enough by Nature to cover it in its news section.
When I spoke to Jai, he said it’s partly about getting new money because the conventional sources may not fit. But a very worthy side-benefit (or even the main benefit, ultimately?) would be that this model encourages scientists — I’d say forces them — to communicate their science to the public. So crowd-funding is a means of establishing a more direct link between those funding the research (‘the people’) and those doing it (‘the scientists’). This, indeed, could prove very valuable in the long term… since the lack of link between people and existing academic knowledge might be one of the reasons for our current sustainability problems.