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Is It Possible to Ethically Crowdfund Science?


Over the past few years, one of the most exciting new phenomena to arise from the prevalence and pervasiveness of the internet is crowdfunding.  New websites such as Indiegogo, Kickstarter, and AngelList have made it possible for young entrepreneurs and artists who otherwise lack the funding to fulfill their visions.  In the past 24 months, we have seen products revolutionizing fields such as medical data acquisition (stay tuned for an upcoming blog about the societal implications of devices such as these) and movies starring A-List celebrities such as Zach Braff and Kristen Bell arise from crowdfunded ventures.  Naturally, since not all projects receive government grants and there is only a finite amount of money available for science research from private foundations, scientists in need of research dollars to fulfill ambitious projects have turned to crowdfunding.  Why does this warrant attention from bioethicists and science policy wonks? Because of a crowdfunded HIV vaccine project recently profiled in Nature.

The mainstream virology community seems to believe that the project is likely to fail.  This highlights the main point against crowdfunding expanding its purview to science: large-scale science projects tend to work best when they are peer-reviewed and agreed upon as relevant and worthy of funding by those educated in the field.  There is a difference between being able to sell one’s concept to an uneducated public desperate for a cure using vague science, and having a project grounded in established science and strong hypotheses that has been deemed worthy of federal funding.   Is the former not perilously close to snake oil?  But: if even a few crowdfunded projects further develop science in some meaningful way after being overlooked by the mainstream scientific community, does this not justify the crowdfunding option? Would it really be ethical to ban the practice outright and trust only in the slow incrementalism of the research establishment?