November 19, 2011

Small-scale (peer-to-peer) science funding: a new paradigm

About two years ago, I got interested in the idea (which I thought to be unique at the time) of funding scientific research using the internet and social media as a mechanism. I quickly wrote a white paper on the idea, which I admit may be a bit naive. Soon after this, however, I read an article in Wired about alternative mechanisms (e.g. peer-to-peer) for funding research. After reading this article and following-up with additional research, I looked into two sites as possibilities: 1) kickstarter, which seems to focus more on d.i.y-style/artistic projects, and 2) SciFlies, which is more directly interested in scientific research. After two years of development (of both the SciFlies model and my own approach to marketing research), my project entitled "New Directions in Biocomplexity" has now gone "live" (although in Beta-testing format) on the SciFlies website.

SciFlies will allow any scientist with a formal research plan to submit a project. Research projects are then vetted by the SciFlies staff. Finally, donations are solicited over a finite time-frame. Donations can be anywhere from $10 to $10,000, and are tax- deductible. While I cannot be certain how much I will raise using this method, I have set an (rather ambitious?) expectation of $20,000 over the course of a year and a half. Please consider donating.

The desire for an "ideas exchange", small-science peer-to-peer funding outlet, or whatever you want to call it, this is the product of three converging trends:

1) an increase in the volume of scientists seeking funding. In the past 50 years, science has become a legitimate profession. The funds available from major and even minor formally-defined granting agencies cannot keep pace with this increase. Science is an increasingly diverse enterprise, and as such requires a plurality of funding mechanisms. Also consider that work judged not competitive enough for large-scale funding might lead to the next breakthrough if funded in a more incremental fashion.

2) the generally risk-averse and/or top-down nature of major funding agencies (NIH, NSF, DARPA, etc). What I mean by risk-averse is that calls for specific types of projects are made, and then responded to by interested parties. Large-scale funding is generally done in a "top-down" fashion (e.g. a problem is defined, and then people are funded to solve it). However, both cutting-edge (not well- established experimentally) work and work that does not fall neatly into one category or another is not very likely to be funded using this framework. Peer-to-peer funding allows researchers to engage in research that is not "cut-and-dried", nor does it require "grand challenge"-style innovations.

3) with government and University budgets in extreme flux, using peer-to-peer funding schemes to augment government funding or even to replace it entirely for certain initiatives makes sense. Social media and online science communication have come of age, and we should use this to start new and "out there" initiatives, move in new conceptual directions, and more generally advance science.

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