MCB-funded Workshop Explores Benefits and Challenges of Crowdfunding Basic Research

Participants listen attentively to panel dicussion

Approximately 70 guests attended the workshop

Researchers, scientific society representatives, citizen scientists, academics, economists, and non-profit leaders convened October 10 in Alexandria, VA, to exchange experiences and perspective on using crowdfunding to help finance basic research in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) topics. The day-long workshop, which drew approximately 70 participants, addressed a wide range of topics, including:

  1. The hidden benefits of crowdfunding (public engagement, corporate sponsors);
  2. Risk and innovation in crowdfunded research;
  3. Federal regulations and crowdfunding;
  4.  Crowdfunding campaigns and platforms;
  5. The role of public-private partnerships in identifying worthy projects to support;
  6. Crowdfunding experiences from the research perspective;
  7. Crowdfunding and fraud.

Titled “The Role of Crowdfunding in the STEM Ecosystem,” the workshop was organized by Dr. Morris Cohen, Assistant Professor, Georgia Institute of Technology, and funded by the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) via award #1745230.

Dr. Morris Cohen

Dr. Morris Cohen

“To my knowledge, no one has brought together this group of stakeholders before,” says Cohen. “By featuring several crowdfunding success stories alongside academic research on benefits and risks of crowdfunding, participants walked away with a well-rounded sense of the social benefits and legal considerations of crowdfunded research.”

“Part of our mission as NSF program managers is to understand the ways in which the community of scientists operates in a broader society,” says Dr. Arcady Mushegian, Program Director, MCB. “Crowdfunding is already part of the science-funding landscape, and often also a mechanism for building public engagement with science. We will continue to study crowdfunding as a social phenomenon and as part of our investigators’ funding portfolio.”

The workshop raised two key questions, says Cohen. “The most interesting question raised in my mind was on the role of ‘policing’ or ‘reviewing’ STEM projects that go out for public fundraising. Is it better to find a way to ‘stamp’ projects before a public pitch to make sure credible ones get recognized, or should ‘the wisdom of the crowd’ — an unfettered system — be relied upon to maximize the chances for true innovation? If so, is the goal to vet proposals much like the existing review system, or is it better to really just have a sanity check to avoid things like fraud or misuse?”

The second key question, says Cohen, addresses the role of crowdfunding in STEM. “Does crowdfunding maximize the connection between the general public and STEM researchers? Or is it to also supplement the actual funding stream that comes from other sources?”

Cohen plans to publish a more detailed report on the workshop in the next few weeks at LF.gatech.edu/workshop.html. “This workshop was the chance to have a conversation and lay out some basic principles. My hope is that this is just the beginning of a conversation, not the end,” he says.

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