The hidden agenda behind the #SciFund Challenge

Jai Ranganathan

I admit it. I have a hidden agenda in organizing the #SciFund Challenge. Sure, raising money from the general public through the internet – crowdfunding – could be a great way to generate money for your research. But this Challenge is about a lot more than money.

A giant number of public policy issues today (nuclear power, vaccine development, climate change, and on and on) are ultimately  about science. Yet, scientists are mostly sitting on the sidelines of the policy debates and, as a consequence, the policy results are usually much worse.

Why do scientists maintain their public vow of silence? There are a lot of reasons, but a big one is that there are few professional advantages for scientists to engage with the public. To tenure committees, grants matter, papers matter, and teaching matters (sometimes). Engaging with the public – by say writing a regular science column for a general-interest website or by organizing outreach events around a scientific issue – is probably not going to help a scientist’s reputation (and chance for advancement) among his or her peers.

What happens to scientists after they engage with the public.

In fact, many scientists fear that they will take a major hit professionally by seriously engaging with the public. Scientists may be judged by their peers to be not serious about  science if a lot of time is spent engaging with general audiences.  Even worse, by getting involved in big public issues, scientists may be considered to have lost their objectivity.

But what if the incentives were different? What if scientists were rewarded for communicating with the general public? What if scientists could raise a large portion of their research budget directly from the public, through a crowdfunding campaign?

Suddenly, the incentive structure would look very different for scientists because money talks. Suddenly, engaging with the public – at least in this particular way – would be seen as a tremendous positive by scientific peers, injecting scientists back into the public sphere. And, as an additional benefit, scientists who run successful crowdfunding campaigns would gain the skills needed to compellingly communicate with general audiences. After all, you can’t  raise money from broad audiences, unless you can speak to them in an engaging way (in regular language) about why your research matters.

So, it finally has been revealed. The hidden agenda of the #SciFund Campaign is to get scientists back out into the public sphere with the communication skills they’ll need to influence the public. What do you think? Are you ready to sign up?

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  1. Well… I am ready to sign up a pledge to engage with the public, but not based on potential monetary rewards. Instead, I think we ought to do it because it is part of our duty to explain the work we do to those that fund it. And because, as you correctly point out, many important public policies depend on science (or at least should depend on it). What would the public think of scientists if the only ones they want to talk to them do it due to potential financial gain?

  2. @ Dario: Who knows? Once they started communicating with ‘ordinary people’, some scientists might find that they enjoyed it. Who knows? Some might even find a creative synergy with daft ideas that spur other more useful ones. Who knows? Research funds might become an encouraging & useful bonus to a pleasant avocation.

    You never know. 🙂

    Signed
    Ordinary Person with Lifelong Fascination with Science

  3. Jai,

    I just ran across your mention of SciFund while watching research videos on the Santa Fe Institute site. Seeing SciFund just starting now is a pleasant surprise.

    Your talk, blog posts, and discussion with Dr. Hirschey got me thinking… I’m currently interning at a neuromarketing company. Our technologies gather real-time quantitative data on how people perceive and feel as they interact with online environments.

    What do you think about crowdfunding SciFund itself as a research project… how it works, why it works, and how to make it work really well? As an endeavor designed to benefit science, pursuing it scientifically seems fitting. As a web developer and analyst*, I can both prototype interfaces and do research (information/research distribution, social media analysis, real-time traffic splitting for A/B…N split tests, etc).

    While I haven’t put a lot of thought into it yet, the potential is intriguing. Given a dedicated researcher, could crowdfunding SciFund itself work? Curious what you think.

    Cheers!

    Adam Laughlin

    *Background – I have a B.A. psych, 6 years web design/development, and 2 years in nonprofit fundraising/analytics at international nonprofit Save the Children, where I developed and piloted an initiative that involved crowdsourcing my own job to 22 volunteers from a dozen countries.

    1. Hey, Adam, thanks for your comment. As part of the #SciFund challenge, rather than re-invent the wheel of creating a crowdfunding platform, we’re looking to use something that is already existing – rockethub, kickstarter, sciflies, or the like. We’re starting pretty simple here. We’re hoping to analyze the data post-hoc. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on what would make a good platform for this project as we move forward, but I don’t think we’ll be creating anything new at this juncture. Maybe in the future?

  4. Jai,

    I’ve been jotting down some thoughts the last couple days, mostly unrelated to platforms. Hopefully I’ll be able to post them tomorrow or Monday.

    If you had to bullet-point summarize the reputation and peer-reviewing challenges SciFund faces, what would they be?

    Adam

  5. Jarrett,
    Some sort of review structure will be necessary, so I outlined some of the motivations for submitters, funders (individual & organizational), and reviewers within the context of a largely transparent system. Some challenges and potential solutions were apparent.

    While I started collecting them for a post, my upcoming move is taking priority. It sounds like you already have a structure in place for this initial effort, so I’ll plan on posting after the move.

    Looking forward to further discussion then,

    Adam

  6. I have thought many times about using kickstarter for scientific projects. I think research questions can and should range from the profound to the mundane and a Kickstarter-like platform would allow different levels of funding for research both simple and complex. I also think publishing quick research answering the simpler questions in life would be a gateway for the public to become more interested in the quest for answers to higher-order questions that occur within the ivory towers these days. This seems like a good avenue to try these things. Count me in.