Thanks to popular sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, crowdfunding is now commonplace. They’re the platforms musicians turn to, to release their first CD, or where local alumni pray to break their initial $18,000 fundraising goal in just 25 hours. Although started for today’s creatives, however, crowdfunding’s begun to to take a turn for the educational. Because if you can crowdfund art, why not crowdfund academic research?

Earlier this year, Denny Luan launched Microryza, a website that allows others to give money to research they care about. From bringing a triceratops to Seattle or developing Omnioff, a non-toxic alternative to Teflon non-stick cookware, the platform runs the gamut of research projects. Many of which might not receive funding elsewhere. As the Microryza team writes:

The way we fund research is broken. Today, the average researcher spends 12 weeks a year writing grants, most are rejected. Why? Because of economic and political pressure that favors expensive, low-risk, long-term science instead of new, unique and often high-risk fundamental research.

Considering science is what powers advancements in medicine and serves as the backbone of modern technology, why shouldn’t we be putting more of our money there? Perhaps because there’s a risk. Luan admitted to Inside Higher Ed that research projects don’t always go as expected and produce the desired results. He said, “You can’t really offer things like ‘I will name a newly discovered butterfly species after you’ to get people to donate,” which is why there aren’t any rewards or incentives for those who fork over the dough.

Although, to Luan, it’s less about the money and more about the process. He describes Microryza as a “social learning” site, because it gives outsiders the opportunity to watch a project grow and provide insight on scientific processes. And he’s not alone in trying to launch this kind of platform off the ground.

Claude Sheer just launched iAMscientist here in Bedford, deciding to focus on, what he describes to Mass High Tech, as “more meaningful research aimed at specific data.”

Matt Salzberg, a senior associate at Bessemer Venture Partners, also recently founded PetriDish.org, a site similar to Microryza and iAMscientist that helps others become a part of science history. Completed projects include finding and saving Nicaragua’s last population of jaguars and searching for a new species of ants in Madagascar. As Salzberg told Discover Magazine:

The emotion that we’re trying to get across is that people are so excited about new discoveries, new ideas, and science, but a person at home has no way to feel like they’re a part of that, except for reading along. We wanted to build a site where people could be part of the story, where you can make a new discovery happen — you can point to something and say, “You know what, if it wasn’t for me, this discovery would not have happened yet, this new species of ant would not have been discovered, this moon outside of the solar system would never have been found. I contributed to understanding the dynamic that goes into monkey communication.” There are a lot of cool things that you can make happen.

What Salzberg’s describing is something others have called “citizen science,” which goes well beyond just asking the crowd for funding. Just take a look at SciStarter, for example. The website is a place where scientists can share their work and others can help with, by participating in recreational activities and research projects. Although there’s no funding aspect, the crowdsourcing of academic work’s been going on for years, leading some to question whether or not the process is dumbing research down. As The Guardian asks:

When some of the responsibility for content is pushed out into the public arena, is there a risk that we are trawling research data from the hands of those who know little about it? How do we balance the quantity of content we need with rigorous quality control?

For companies, crowdsourcing can come at a major advantage. The Guardian notes that BMW received 4,000 ideas within seven days of setting up its Virtual Innovation Agency, which invites people to submit ideas for products and designs. So, for researchers who are hoping to achieve those kinds of numbers, and need input to piece together puzzles they wouldn’t be able to finish otherwise, crowdsourcing is a plus.

In 2010, Harvard launched their own crowdsourcing project through InnoCentive, seeking new questions and answers to Type 1 diabetes. Prizes ranged from $2,500 to $10,000 and were doled out not only to experts who contributed the best answers, but also to those who asked the best questions that could inform people outside the diabetes field.

Of course, there was something in it for Harvard. Wired reported they were likely to see government funding extended “if their findings proved helpful to diabetes sufferers, medical research in general and our shared knowledge of how to share knowledge.”

The more we do share knowledge, though, the easier it is to break down barriers between groups that are, otherwise, doing derivative work. Not only that, we can speed up innovation. Just imagine turning the old saying, “Two brains are better than one,” into “Thousands of brains are better than one.” Well — at least with a little quality control.

Both crowdfunding and crowdsourcing have big roles they can play in the academic arena, once more people feel comfortable about playing a part. At the end of the day, what would you rather fund? Your best friend’s newest solo album, or saving Nicaragua’s last jaguar population? Just something to consider.

Photo Courtesy of Yannig Roth