People are more likely to contribute small amounts of money to support junior researchers and students than they are to give to scientists with records of achievement, reversing the behavior of funding agencies.
Unless scientists' work has military potential, they're usually part of a pool of too many people with good ideas chasing too little money. Increasingly, researchers are turning to online crowd-sourcing instead. A study of these appeals has found something intriguing – the types of scientists who do well out of crowd-funding are the opposite of those most likely to win grants.
The vast majority of scientific research is still government funded, whether directly or indirectly. Most of the rest comes through philanthropic agencies. Both usually prefer scientists with established reputations, and men do better than women. Younger scientists usually depend on being part of teams led by established names.
Dr Henry Sauermann of ESMT Berlin looked at 700 efforts to seek funding via Experiment.com, easily the largest platform for exclusively science-based projects. Funding targets ranged from $100 (some scientists are poor) to $1 million. The median was $3,500 and 48 percent reached their target.
In PLOS One Sauermann reports half his sample were led by university students, many of them undergraduates. Student projects attracted more money on average than those of professors, although those led by postdocs did best of all. Women asked for less money than men, on average, but were much more likely to get it, drawing almost twice as much per request. Listing previous publications on fundraising pages doesn't seem to help, but carrying endorsements from prominent individuals does.
“Crowdfunding has opened the door for people who would not be able to participate in the traditional grant funding mechanism,” Sauermann told Nature News.
The study raises some potentially very important questions about these patterns. After all, funding agencies would argue there are good reasons to invest in scientists who have proven they can deliver, rather than people who may turn out to be less than competent in some way.
Young scientists may just be more social media-savvy. Perhaps the best projects by senior scientists get funded through the usual sources. In which case the ones proposed on Experiment.com aren't that good, whereas early career researchers, particularly women, miss out and are forced to use crowd-funding for projects whose worth the public spots.
Alternatively, government priorities may be out of step with those of the public, and younger scientists are better at tapping into the spirit of the age. It's also possible people just feel more sympathetic to those who are starting out and keen to have a go.
Any agency looking to overhaul its grants process may want to think about which of these is true.