University research is almost exclusively funded on a “grants” model. In this model, the principle investigator (PI) sends a proposal to somewhere like the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation. These large funding bodies review proposals a few times a year using a peer-review process, and a small (very small!) percentage of the proposals will be granted funding. The funding body sends the money directly to the University, which takes a cut to cover “indirect” costs like facility and equipment maintenance, library access, and other things that are necessary for research but not attributable to any one specific research project. The University then puts the remainder of the money into a fund that the PI can draw from to pay personnel and buy supplies. The funding body wants to know that the research dollars are being used appropriately. Having a specific fund for each project allows the University and the PI to keep track of how the money is spent and, presumably, show that it was spent well.
In contrast, the “Athlete’s Foot in Worms?” project, which officially started research this week, is a crowdfunded project. Crowdfunding currently lacks the accountability of the traditional grants system. The PI posts a proposal on-line using a crowdfunding platform that takes care of accepting money from funders and paying the PI (the SciFund project I participated in used RocketHub). And then … nothing happens. When my research was funded, RocketHub took its cut, sent me a check, and said “congratulations”. They will not be checking up on me to make sure that I sent my funders their thank-you gifts. They will not be asking for a progress report. If I spend the money on a vacation instead of lab supplies, they wouldn’t know and probably couldn’t do much about it even if they did.
What keeps me firmly in the Pacific Northwest, rather than Bermuda, isn’t RocketHub. Rather, it’s the contract I’ve made with the people who contributed through the RocketHub site: Take this money; make this project happen; honor your obligations with your thank-you gifts and by keeping us updated as the research progresses. If you do, we might fund another of your projects in the future. We might tell our friends and family that you’re worth supporting. If you don’t, you are losing some serious street cred. Some of us know you. Some of us are related to you. Don’t let us down.