How do we decide whether crowd-sourced projects are worth funding?

This is a tale of two ant-related projects, both launched through the science crowd-funding initiative

Brian Fisher’s $10,000 Malagasy Ants project, a pilot initiative for the nascent Petri Dish group, was fully funded earlier this year:

This week, Joe Parker opened a call for $3000 to collect ant-nest beetles in Peru:

Have a look at both projects.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume Brian’s call is still open. Next, let’s assume that I have generously given you $100 to donate to a project. Your options are:

  1. Spend it all on Brian.
  2. Spend it all on Joe.
  3. Split the donation between the two.

What will you do?

A pselaphine beetle (Adranes sp.) in a nest of Lasius ants. California, USA.

Here’s where I get hung up. I’m not sure what this says about me, but I ran into trouble when I started thinking about each project’s background.

Brian Fisher- and I’m sorry about this, Brian- does not exactly need the cash. Brian’s lab is established, well-funded, and already a global force in entomology. He’s even taken political criticism for receiving federal stimulus money. (These criticisms are bogus, but that’s a topic for another post). On the plus side, I know every penny I spend on Brian will be returned many-fold in solid results and in improvements to the central database. Brian’s project is such a sure bet that I don’t feel a need to place it.

Joe Parker- and I’m sorry about this, Joe- has no prior publications related to the proposed research. This lack of a track record is not a problem per se. After all, Joe is requesting extremely modest funds considering the cost of international travel, and well in line with the in-house grants regularly awarded to non-published graduate students for similar work. But as a potential donor, I’m taking more of a risk with Joe’s project. Will the unproven guy really turn $3000 into a publication?

Do we choose the safe option that doesn’t need it, or the risky proposal that does? Is the crowd-sourced funding model more apt for these riskier projects?

 *update: Note that Brian would name a new species after a donor for $5,000, while Joe would do the same for $2,000. Are ants worth more than beetles? And seriously, $2,000 for your own species is a bargain. I’m kinda surprised no one has taken that option yet.

10 thoughts on “How do we decide whether crowd-sourced projects are worth funding?”

  1. Good post Alex. I guess I would split it, strictly from an oddsmaking perspective. Of course, NSF kind of does this every funding cycle with junior faculty and funding is always a crapshoot. I’m afraid of asking for crowdfunding personally because if I put my face on camera I suspect people will just think I want to take their money in a fruitless search for my long-lost Neanderthal brethren.

    1. Just wear your blue fisherman’s hat that you had when we did the CBS Sunday morning thing with Walter a few years back- I’m pretty sure that Neanderthal would not even cross a single person’s mind 🙂

  2. I’ve collected a few Pselaphine in my short time as a bug enhusiast. It always is a treat because I know a guy who will exchange Carabidae secimens (my personal interest) for them. The Cremastocheilus (ant-eating scarabs) I always keep, though.

  3. The average US taxpayer pays about $45 a year for basic science research funded through NSF. That’s not accurate because it doesn’t account for the progressive nature of taxes, but it’s a rough estimate.

    PetriDish gives the public an opportunity to give a little more than $45 to science. Imagine dividing up your $45 annual contribution to science to all the different projects funded by NSF, it’s be pennies or less per grant. So by comparison, even a donation of $1 or $5, even spread over multiple petridish grants, strongly amplifies one person’s contribution to a particular set of projects.

  4. Well, that’s the beauty of it. Some folks will opt for Brian, and others will go with Joe. And they will have a myriad of different reasons. If I wanted to have a species named after me, I’d go with Brian because he seems like a better bet, even at 5:2. If I have a general bias in favor of the little guy, Joe’s my man. If I have a huge collection of stuffed lemurs in my bedroom, I’d send my money to Madagascar.
    I think the best part is that everyone who contributes will have a personal connection to the project they support.

  5. No brainer. Joe is asking for a reasonable amount of money to do research on a group that is fascinating, but not likely to attract a lot of funding. Looks like he will have to work pretty hard at it too. Then there is the unexpected Monday morning bonus of schadenfreude for the victimized ants. Better than donuts!

    I’m sure Brian’s research is equally fascinating and onerous, but it looked more like a holiday at more than three times the expense of the pselaphine work. Besides, ant research is well funded and if ants really are of especial interest to pharmaceutical companies, then why not hit them up for the money? I’m not saying I believe this (I know the Madagascar fauna and flora are in trouble), but that was my reaction to Brian’s spiel and ant research does seem to be the beneficiary of the Matthew/Mark observation (them that have shall get).

    Now to figure out how much money I can afford to send Joe.

  6. Pingback: Links 11/19/12 | Mike the Mad Biologist

  7. Looks like at least 63 people disagree with the myrmecos big science option and Joe will get his money (and my Amazon account will be debited). Go small science!

  8. Bludging a bit while my eyes recover from too much microscopy and caught up on Biodiversity in Focus which reminded me of this post. I think the results are interesting. The little science pselaphine project is at 152% with 81 backers (including me) and the big science ant project at 102% with 94 backers.

    It’s hard to compare the two projects because (1) the scales shown are different: $5-2000 vs $20-$5000 and (2) neither total adds up (presumably some donations are above the category dollar number – but almost a third of Brian’s 94 backers aren’t listed – under $20?), but if you deduct the three myremcophile big spenders ($7 grand), Joe actually attracted about a third more dollars in the $500 and under backers.

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