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The Challenges and Possibilities of Crowdfunded Research
Some rough thoughts about funding research organizations through many small donations
Prompted by PARPA raising money in the most recent Gitcoin round I thought it would be worthwhile to write a short memo about crowdfunded research organizations and specific experiments we hope to do around building a engaged base of supporters.
Pulling off building a long-lasting research organization takes a lot of resources. (Innovation orgs need a money factory!) Research organizations have historically been bankrolled by some combination of large companies, the government, or high net worth individuals or foundations they set up. It would be awesome if we could add an engaged large base of supporters to this list!
Unfortunately, small-donor based (or, if you prefer, “crowdfunded”) donations just don’t reach the levels needed to run a research organization, especially research that requires multiple people and equipment beyond blackboards and computers. There’s not a lot of public data out there, but from private conversations, the funding for even well-known crowd-funded researchers tends to cap out at a level that can support one person and maybe an occasional contractor. Experiment.com is an awesome crowdfunded research platform, but most of their projects don’t cross $15,000. That’s wonderful for catalyzing a new project, but it’s not enough to even fund a single graduate student for a year. Online tip jars stand almost empty. The conversion rate between people being excited about an idea and giving even $1 is abysmal.
I can think of several reasons why that might cause the limits to crowd-funded research:
Exploratory research is almost by definition hard to grok, so the number of people who understand why work beyond things like “cure cancer” is important and worth their money will always be small.
Research takes a long time to build a track record and for a small donation, it’s not worth putting in a lot of work to diligence an organization without much of a track record (like us).
Culturally, we’re accustomed to think of funding research as the domain of big companies, the government, or big philanthropists — donating to the Red Cross counts as charity, while donating to research does not.
It feels like the culture of charity in general has declined: we’ve come to expect that we always get something for our money — most Kickstarters and Patreons have a pretty quid-pro-quo nature — and there is a popular attitude that if an enterprise can’t capture the value it creates, it must not be valuable at all.
One speculative way to start addressing these root causes is by making it much more satisfying to be part of a large group that collectively funds a research organization.
Donating a small amount to most organizations is a profoundly unsatisfying experience: maybe you get a piece of thank-you memorabilia and occasional update letters. Patreon has leveraged the internet and software to improve on this a bit: enabling patron-only content and for patrons to interact via the discussion thread on posts. My hunch is that we can leverage modern technology to do so much more. Communication is effectively free and we can easily track who donated every single dollar and when. Surely those tools can be used to
There are several experiments that I would to try (ordered roughly from least crazy to most crazy):
Supporter-specific communication channels.
A supporters-only community forum1 where supporters can interact with each other and program managers and get involved with current and not-yet formed programs.
Tracking exactly which dollar was spent on what: this dollar went towards a screw in an experimental setup; that dollar went towards a program manager to fly out to talk to a lab, etc.
Creating a group that acts as a voting body that weighs in on which programs to deploy money towards. This seems like a potential use for a Decentralized Autonomous Organization.
If you have other ideas, I’d love to hear them!
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Note: I threw this memo together quickly to finish before the Gitcoin grant round ended. I will probably update and expand it in the future.
Heretically among some groups, I don’t think Discord leads to well-thought out discussions or lasting knowledge creation, while forums (especially those that you can interact with via an email list) do.