Akiraa PS is a Computer Scientist who was headed for a career researching Artificial Intelligence when he abruptly changed course. Now, instead of doing his own research, he has created a crowdfunding platform to help other scientists raise money to continue their work at a time when money for science is scarce.
Research Fundrs, as the platform is called, connects scientists with potential donors who can help fund their research and projects. Based out of Hyderabad, the knowledgeable staff of Research Funders screens proposed projects for feasibility and novelty, while also running checks on the applicants to prevent fraud. Once approved, researchers can post videos and Q&A about their projects on the site. In a similar fashion like Kickstarter, here visitors can back the project of their choice.
In the past few years, there have been significant changes in the country’s main research funding body. Ministry reforms included changes to the peer review system and how funding is distributed, among other things. This has lead to a turmoil in the research community where many aspirants are left wondering as to how they can continue their research because oftentimes, funding is scarce.
While advanced countries invest about 2% of their GDP to science, India’s investment in basic science has been revolving around 0.9% of GDP for the last decade. So, there’s a stark difference between the two scenarios.
“There is sort of a quiet crisis brewing. It really is a huge problem,” said Akiraa.
Crowdfunding has been used and continues to be used across the globe to raise money for scientific research and engage the general public in science — no small feat in an age of alternate facts and anti-science undercurrents. This fascinated Akiraa who observed that India has no such platforms to help launch crowdfunding campaigns for scientific research. In our country, both the government and the private bodies are only interested in backing tenured professors and not the young, curious minds who hold untapped potential. He said:
“A lot of countries have science crowdfunding platforms. India is a little behind in a lot of ways.”
A great success story of crowdfunding is the Brain Project, a campaign for a brain imaging study that raised almost $80,000 to support a unique goal: the first functional magnetic resonance images of the brain on LSD. The Beckley Foundation, a UK-based charitable trust that promotes research and awareness of psychoactive drugs, will use this money to scan volunteers for acid attacks. Such is their passion for science.
Akiraa calls the project the “rockstar” of the science crowdfunding world as it has not only raised more than $1 million, but also has been greatly successful in engaging many people in science, as it allows the public to view and compare the brain images.
Earlier this year, in June, Research Funders (www.researchfunders.org) launched its beta version. In the beta stage it has helped fund over 30 diverse projects, ranging from cancer research to marine biology, raising over $110,000 from over 3,000 individual citizens. And the amazing thing is that Research Funder only takes a 5% fee on fully-funded projects!
Akiraa is of the view that crowdfunding can fill funding gaps and help further the works of researchers that will enable them to get major funding support in the future. Not to forget that it also engages and educate the general public about scientific research.
“I think things have evolved and now scientists don’t have the luxury of being able to work in the lab and not talk to the public. Science needs to reconnect with the public – that is almost more important in the long-term than helping to fill the funding gaps, which are absolutely urgent,” maintains Akiraa.
He also thinks that he is capable of creating a bigger impact through Research Funders than doing research:
“I see this as a way I could have a big positive impact.”
As to whether a shift to crowdfunding will entail less inclination on the government’s part to support scientific research, Akiraa opines that though the two are not comparable, crowdfunded projects can complement larger-scale research. When asked whether crowdfunding favours “cute and cuddly” research over other types of work, he said that has not been the case elsewhere, according to a study. He stated:
“It boils down to how the researchers told their story, how tangible their goal and how clearly they stated it. Injecting humour and personality helps. Any project can be made compelling or relatable, it is just a question of how you do that.”