28 June 2013

Crowdfunding is the wind power of science

Base load or baseline power comes up in most discussions about energy and energy policy. The baseline is the amount of power that must be available at any and all times. You need something that can generate power constantly.

The argument from base load power is typically used to argue that we must pursue nuclear power and not renewables like wind and solar. Wind and sun are not constant, so therefore not dependable enough for base load power generation.

But base load power generation has problems. They put lots of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (e.g. coal), or depend on unevenly distributed resources that are difficult to transport and require expensive initial outlays (e.g., nuclear). And despite these problems, we can’t seem to get off these, particularly fossil fuels. So we get projects like the Keystone XL pipeline project and mountaintop removal mining.

I get a very similar vibe when I hear a lot of people talking about crowdfunding. There are a lot of concerns about whether crowdfunding science is “sustainable” (which obviously has a very different meaning than in energy). It is the same argument as base load power: people want there to be some stable funding that they can always count on.

For science in the United States and many other countries, the base load funding has been from federal government agencies. But like energy, base load funding has problems. Getting money is time consuming. Worse, it’s arguably falling below the minimum to keep things running efficiently. And sometimes it feels like everyone will just keep trying to work the same system instead of trying to establish any new ones.

In energy, many conclude that regardless of how you deal with the base load problem, there needs to be a portfolio of energy options. No, wind can’t do it alone... but in some places, maybe it can do a lot. In some places, solar might make more sense, in other places, geothermal may be an option. And they may all have to be built in concert with nuclear or something that can address the base load.

We should view crowdfunding in science like we do wind power in energy. It’s one part of a range of options for funding science. It won’t work equally well for every lab. But it shouldn’t be denigrated because of that. Because it won’t work for everything does not mean it won’t work for anything.

It is true that we still need to see more examples of projects brought to fruition because of crowdfunding. These things take time. But Alex Warneke will be presenting a poster with this on it:

It’s a good start.

P.S.— I started writing this post before I learned of a crowdfunded science project that raised one million dollars.

Additional: #SciFund has now racked up its first peer-reviewed paper! This is a huge milestone. I can’t wait to see more crowdfunded research hitting the journal pages.

External links

ARKYD: A Space Telescope for Everyone
How much can you get with science crowdfunding? How about ONE MILLION DOLLARS!
The First Fruits of #SciFund

Turbine photo by andre.vanrooyen on Flickr; mountaintop photo by nrdc_media on  Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

No comments: