In defence of the crowd

This post was originally submitted as a comment, in response to Milking the Crowd, by Melonie Fullick at Speculative Diction.

A view of the climate change protest crowd in Melbourne

So many people II, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Melonie has written a thoughtful piece that highlights some of the potential issues with crowdfunding. It is a debate that is worth having. I’m pro-crowdfunding, but I’d be the first to admit that there are issues to be sorted out.

There are specific problems around crowdfunding, but I don’t think that lack of peer review is one of them. While government research funding is usually peer reviewed,  industry and philanthropic funding sources generally aren’t. They are competitive, but they aren’t peer reviewed. Industry funding applications are often selected by a manager or committee, on advice from an in-house expert. They are then approved by a board of directors. Some large philanthropic schemes use peer review, but most don’t. In Australia (and, I’m guessing, elsewhere), most funds are distributed by committee, perhaps on advice from a program manager, who apply a score based on their selection criteria.

Non-expert publics do not have the same priorities as peers in your field, just as industry research sponsors and philanthropic organisations do not have the same priorities as peers in your field.

Crowdfunding is, as you point out, a campaign for donations. Donations to universities for research (which include scholarship funds, professorial chairs, building funds as well as research project funds) are never peer-reviewed, in my experience.

Moreover, this absence of peer review can be recast as a benefit of crowdfunding. There are some areas of promising work that find it very difficult to gain peer support, in part because the go against the common wisdom and, sometimes, because they are reworking areas that are perceived to have been ‘done’ already. There are also some types of research, such as replication studies and taxonomy work, that find it very difficult to secure government funds. The Australian Research Council, for example, explicitly says that it will not fund:

“compilation of data, computer programs, research aids and tools; descriptive data compilations, catalogues or bibliographies; or teaching materials.”

These restrictions don’t apply to crowdfunding.

The Australian Research Council also won’t fund anything less than A$30,000 per annum. In part, this is because peer review is expensive. Crowdfunders are happy to fund small projects: top-up funds, student projects, outreach programs, all sorts of things that it wouldn’t be worth peer-reviewing via a government funding scheme.

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Culling Grant Applications: Heartless Killing or Act of Mercy?

Ksenia SawczakDr Ksenia Sawczak is the Director of the Research Services Office at the University of Canberra. She has extensive government and higher education sector experience, having held positions in academia, research policy development and implementation, and research management. This includes positions at the Australian Research Council and various universities in Australia and overseas.

This article builds on a presentation that she gave at the ARC/NHMRC Research Administrators’ Seminar in November 2013.

There is nothing like the Grants Season to bring out the eternal optimist in each of us. Could this be my year? Will I finally get my hands on the holy grail of the Australian funding world – an ARC Discovery Project grant? Will my brilliant idea be accepted at long last? And so begins a period of tremendous hope and stress for the researcher who, against a backdrop of the looming commencement of teaching responsibilities, struggles through the arduous task of preparing their grant application, often without a clue as to whether it will be worth the effort.

Why are grants so important? What would possibly drive time-poor researchers to spend huge chunks of their time, year after year, to seek funding from agencies which are often out of their league? In most institutions, researchers operate in stressful and confusing environments where they are strongly pressured to apply for research funding – sometimes regardless of whether they actually need money to do their research – and to seek out funding sources (that are often out of their reach) for reasons such as prestige, the need to demonstrate research endeavour, and performance review where grants applied for are one measure by which activity is evaluated.

But given the effort required to prepare a grant application, this doesn’t answer the question of what would possess researchers to seek a source of funding, unless there were some possibility of success. Chances are they do not know that they are out of their league or, more likely, that there are alternative sources of funding that may be more suitable for them at this point in their careers. Either way, there needs to be a shift in research management whereby academics are better informed of their likely competitiveness and universities are better positioned to lift their success rates through a strategic approach to grant submissions. Read more of this post