Crowdfunded research has been discussed in the media

Funding science in the current economic climate is tough, and the economy doesn’t look like it’s going to get better any time soon. At Cancer Research UK, we rely solely on the generosity of the public to keep funding cutting edge science, and we’re always overwhelmed by how far people go to help us. Even so, we have had to make some difficult decisions about what new research we can and can’t afford to fund. In the midst of this squeeze, a new buzzword has started to be bandied around: ‘crowdfunding’.

Offering the promise of cash direct from the public to scientists – this new phenomenon has been touted as a way to ‘turn the taps back on’ for research where funding has dried up. The public too may like the idea of choosing exactly what science is supported, perhaps to help a loved one or to support work in their local area.

Given the recent media coverage about one such enterprise – a project called iCancer that aims to support cancer research in Sweden – and the enquires we’ve had as a result, we thought it was time to look at the whole phenomenon of ‘crowdfunding’.

What is crowdfunding?

Crowdfunding is where a network of people, usually online, collectively contributes to the efforts of one person or a small team. The general way it works is that someone will pitch a good idea and funding target on a website, ask their social network to support them and hope that the money comes in as the idea spreads.

It started in the arts world. Music albums and concerts were supported by crowdfunded money from the late 90s, and this is still probably the largest area that is crowdfunded. But this has now expanded to support books, software development, political campaigns and scientific research.

Crowdfunding is different from venture capital or other forms of investment like stocks and shares. Unlike venture capital, there is no sense that the donor ‘owns’ any part of the company, nor has any say in the direction of the project or will see a financial return on their investment. And the numbers are different too – crowdfunding involves lots of small donations rather than a few large investments.

Why might crowdfunding be a good idea?

With the economy stagnating crowdfunding might seem to offer a way out. Let’s look at some of the reasons why it might be a good idea – and why it might not.

You bypass peer review

Peer review is where a number of experts scrutinise the science to see whether it stands up. A thumbs-down from the peer reviewers may mean that the grant doesn’t get funded. So bypassing this step means that researchers are not at the mercy of anonymous reviewers. If a scientist has an idea, and they can convince enough people that it is a good idea, they can get the funding they need.

You don’t have to work with big agencies

Crowdfunded researchers can side-step the bureaucracy of forms and finance and reporting back. They won’t have administrators asking what they’ve been up to, what they’ve achieved and what the significance of the research is.

Public interaction

A scientist will get the funding only if people think the idea is worthwhile, but this means that the people who do give are going to really want to see them succeed. If the project needs involvement of wider networks – such as testing a smartphone app or enrolling volunteers on a trial – then researchers have a direct route to their backers and networks to help out.

Why might crowdfunding be a bad idea?

You bypass peer review

Peer review is the quality control for research and supports good decision-making. And when it works well, it’s a two-way process. The feedback that a scientist gets from peer review can help hone their research, refine experiments and strengthen the results. Good peer review should point out the pitfalls and should be a reality check on unrealistic ideas.

From lay summaries and quotes from the scientists involved, it is difficult to gauge whether a project really is worthy of funding. Scientists are well trained in selling the vision for their projects and often make ambitious claims that sound impressive, to scientists and non-specialist alike. But often it’s only when expert reviewers, who have experienced the hurdles and pitfalls before, drill down to the core of the projects do some of the holes appear. This helps identify the science that is most likely to have the biggest impact.

Clearly not all peer review is good peer review. But funding bodies usually try hard to get constructive comments back to researchers on their applications. They may want to come back for another go or re-focus their project for another funding agency. With crowdfunding, you don’t get the benefit of expert feedback and advice.

You don’t get to work with big agencies

Without wanting to sound like turkeys voting against Christmas, research can be a lot easier with the backing of a big agency. We and other charity funders provide effective packages over a stable period of time and give researchers a route in to a bigger collaborative network. We back up the grant with support from the press office, our technology transfer team, our science writers and our public engagement experts. We do get help in return – our researchers help us with peer review, take part in fundraising events and advise us on our strategy. But we try, if possible, to make it a partnership, and to recognise that our job is to raise money and give it to them, and their job is to do good science.

And we still manage to spend 80p in every donated £1 directly on research.

The small proportion of money that is spent on the grants administration and peer review is well spent if we invest the rest in research that brings the most benefit to patients.

It’s also worth noting that crowdfunding websites can still come with admin overheads too. On some sites, you can expect up to 10% of the donations to be taken in admin and platform fees.

Public interaction

Public interaction is great fun and is crucial for raising money. But it is hard work. We have a team of people around the country that are engaging with thousands of people every day, explaining why an investment in us is an investment in some of the best cancer research in the world. Other funders are doing this too, taking advantage of blogging and social media to engage with their supporters and create a community. Look at the American Cancer Society, Wellcome Trust and British Heart Foundation for some examples.

If you look at the sites on the top things that cause a crowdfunding request to fail, high up the list are failing to devote enough time to networking or looking after donors.

The crowd expects!

If you are an artist, people can look and see what you have already done. If they like it, they will fund more, in the expectation that they will get more of the same. If they don’t like it when you produce it, well, so be it – you can’t blame the artist if you don’t like their art.

Science doesn’t work like that. An idea could be brilliant. It could change the world. The donors could benefit personally – if it works. But it might not. Or it might just be wrong. Lots of ideas in science are wrong, but on so many occasions, getting a negative result can actually increase what we know, by ruling out alternative theories. But what do you tell your donors if that is the case? Will they appreciate the high failure rate in research?

Here’s just one example: the pathway to get a new drug into the clinic. Now this is classic territory for crowdfunding – the money needed to take lab results through to the clinic, and something that frustrates scientists who can’t get the funding to try out their ideas.

But there is a high attrition rate at each stage of the process. For every 10,000 compounds identified in the lab, 250 will be screened in animals and only 10 of these will show the desired safety and efficacy to be tested in humans. Of these 10, on average, only one or two will end up being approved for clinical use. And this process can take over 10 years and cost millions of pounds overall. And there are lots of arguments about whether or not this is the fault of the drugs companies or regulatory bodies, and it should get better as drug design becomes more ‘rational’, but there will always be a failure rate.

Albert Einstein is famously quoted as saying, “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research!”

We do crowdfund

Ninety per cent of our donations are for less than £10, and this makes up a substantial proportion of our funding. And you only get that level of support from lots of individuals if you can create a sense of mission, if you do engage people. We spend a lot of our time telling our supporters what the researchers are doing, what their money is spent on, what progress we are making. All that feedback needed for a crowdfunded project is actually a central part of our work.

And we see the opportunity of crowdfunding and we are learning how it can be used to maximum effect.

We run something called MyProjects, and the web page looks remarkably similar to many of the crowdfunding sites. There are the details of the projects, updates from the researchers, the tally of money raised. Supporter can choose to give money to the research that means the most to them, whether it’s childhood cancers, clinical trials or cancer nurses. Yes, the money comes through us, but it means the science has already been through the important quality control step before thousands of pounds are spent.

So public empowerment through crowdfunding opens up some great opportunities that we and others are exploring. But exciting as it is, we need to be very careful about making sure crowdfunded research achieves its objectives, given the pitfalls that lie in its path.

Matt Kaiser (Research Funding Manager) and Simon Vincent (Head of Personal Awards and Training)