Should we let the crowd fund Canadian science if no one else will?

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CBCnews | Kelly Crowe | Jan 20, 2018

Scientific crowdfunding is springing up all over the world. It's a departure from the way science is traditionally funded, with public sector institutions awarding research money using rigorous evaluation by experts — a process known as peer review.

But those public funding sources are shrinking. A national report last April warned that Canadian research is seriously underfunded and called on Ottawa to dramatically increase support for basic science.

In the meantime, scientists, especially young researchers, are struggling to launch their careers.  And that's a gap Eric Fisher is hoping to fill, through his made-in-Canada science crowdfunding platform called Labfundr.

See: Sign of the times: Crowdfunding for scientific research

"We have these really major questions and challenges facing society and there's not always the funding available to make the incremental steps forward," said Fisher. He has a Ph.D. in biochemistry, but instead of doing his own research he's decided to support other scientists and run a business at the same time. Like other crowdfunding platforms, Labfundr takes a percentage of the funds raised in successful campaigns.

The idea of going to the crowd to fund science makes Jeremy Snyder nervous. He's a medical ethicist at Simon Fraser University and he's researching the ethics of using crowdfunding to finance medical treatments. Snyder is concerned about a lack of oversight and peer review as science crowdfunding takes off.

"The Labfundr people I'm sure are trying to do a good thing," he said, "and I think there are probably ways it can be done really well, but I think there's also a lot of danger of turning it into a popularity contest, hijacking public funding and really hyping new treatments that aren't well supported by the scientific community and providing an alternate way of funding those."

See also: Crowdfunding the Canadian Knowledge Economy

Jim Woodgett, director of research at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, applauds the initiative but is also concerned about the lack of oversight and peer review.

"How do you identify what is the most likely to be useful or most likely to be scientifically valid? Peer review does provide some quality control but it also sets a pretty high bar, whereas crowdfunding has, in essence, no bar."

Fisher said Labfundr requires researchers to be affiliated with academic institutions.

"We've launched one project to date," said Fisher. "[We've had] quite a few leads and a lot of interest but it's been a challenge to get projects launched."

Crowdfunding science made headlines recently when 1,700 online donors gave money to a campaign to study whether a dimming star is being caused by aliens. A crowdfunding campaign raised more than $100,000, which the researchers used to book time on telescopes. So far the data suggests the dimming light is being caused by space dust — not aliens.

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The National Crowdfunding & Fintech Association of Canada (NCFA Canada) is a national non-profit actively engaged with social and investment crowdfunding, alternative finance, fintech, peer-to-peer (P2P), initial coin offerings (ICO), and online investing stakeholders across the country. NCFA Canada provides education, research, industry stewardship, networking opportunities and services to thousands of community members and works closely with industry, government, academia and eco-system partners and affiliates to create a vibrant and innovative fintech and online financing industry in Canada.  For more information, please visit: www.ncfacanada.org

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