Science Philanthropy for the 99 Percent

A number of science-oriented crowdfunding sites have opened shop.

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In a previous Daily Scan

In a previous Daily Scan commentary, I calculated that the research behind the average NIH-funded scientific paper in a 5.5 impact factor journal costs at least US$ 128,000 to fund (http://www.genomeweb.com/blog/happy-medium). In view of this, the number of biomedical research projects that are likely to be funded by crowdsourcing online is probably much too small to be of real significance in the progress of scientific research as a whole.

The vast majority of scientific research proposals are much too esoteric for the average person to fathom. Unless targeted for popular objectives, such as the diagnosis and treatment of common diseases or saving an endangered species, they are unlikely to receive much interest. As more science crowdsourcing sites mushroom on the Internet, I suspect that the limited number of real donors will be even more confused about whom to support, and the success rate for applicants will plummet to the point where the allocation of time and effort expended to obtain funding through this route will be highly questionable. More famous researchers, who are already well funded and the least needy, will probably be the highest beneficiaries from crowdsourcing.

With continually declining success rates for research support from granting agencies, crowdsourcing might seem to be an attractive option to scientists. However, many researchers need to be more introspective of the value of their efforts to society at large and become more politically active in convincing the general public and politicians about supporting their research if they are really passionate about it.

For donors that are looking to make a real difference with their limited charitable funds, I recommend that they make equity investments in small biotech companies that are started by scientific entrepreneurs that often have made a deep commitment to making their research practical and/or enabling. Most of these founders have strong academic roots. In the worst case scenario, the investors will get no monetary return, but would have contributed to the advancement of scientific research and development of solutions to society's life science problems as a real partner. In the best case scenario, the investors will also realize a profit, and have additional resources to invest in other promising research ventures.