Monday, January 12, 2015

Crowdfunding research and the threshold of reportability

Marketplace recently ran this story

"As funding drops, scientists turn to the crowd"

Here's an excerpt:
Susan Nagel from the University of Missouri studies the health impacts of chemicals used in fracking. Last year, Nagel found remnants of fracking chemicals in Colorado streams near locations of previous fracking spills.

“This was an initial study, and we found this kind of strong association,” Nagel says. But she wanted to go farther and confirm her results with more testing.

Her grant application with the National Institutes of Health, however, sat in limbo for months, so she turned to crowdfunding. Nagel set up a project page on the site

“We spent a lot of time on the actual site, developing a video, developing the content to be short but explicit, to be understandable to a broad audience,” Nagel says.

It worked.

Nagel raised $25,000 for a follow-up study. Research like hers is the latest destination for online donors looking to back projects they like. Brian Meece of the crowdfunder RocketHub says science that strikes an emotional chord does better on his site. “Research for animals, research for the environment ... things that are curious, things that are quirky, things that are fun” all do well, Meece says.
There is nothing howlingly bad about this story -- no mangled explanations, no obvious factual errors -- but it's troubling nonetheless because, simply by virtue of occupying a chunk of prime journalistic real estate, it leaves readers with the impression that crowdfunding is playing a substantial part in driving research.

We are talking about a tiny number of people and, in the grand scheme, a trivial amount of money. If you are looking for a philanthropic outlet, might be a worthwhile place to send a few dollars, but it doesn't have a place in a serious discussion of how we fund science.

There's a certain natural tension between the desire to cover the unusual and unexpected versus the desire to talk about things that are important and have a large impact (the very fact that something doesn't happen that often tends to limit the number of people it affects ). We therefore cannot expect most stories to be unusual and important, but all too often we see stories that are neither.

Crowdfunding is one of these topics that should often fall in the uninteresting middle. It has been around for years and people use it to raise money for all sorts of things. The fact that someone is using something like Kickstarter to fund a project is no longer, in and of itself, newsworthy.

Crowdfunding also fails the newsworthiness test when we approach it from the other side and look at its impact on society and the economy. With a few niche exceptions (independent filmmaking for example), the role of these sites is almost invariably minor, if not vanishingly small.

We see stories like this partially because they involve what are seen by reporters and, more to the point, editors and publishers as sexy topics that fit nicely with standard narratives. This one involves the internet, the "new economy," and it uses 'crowd' as a prefix. More importantly, it falls squarely in the ever-popular easy-solution genre. No one wants to talk about the tough choice between the nasty political fights and higher taxes needed to fund research adequately on one hand and on the other, the technological and economic stagnation that comes with neglecting the investment. Crowdfunding is a comically inadequate solution but it allows us to put off unpleasant conversations.

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