Crowd Science - People-Funded Research

This article was written prior to Walacea's rebranding to Crowd Science

We were joined by Natalie Jonk, founder of Walacea - a crowdfunding platform focussed on funding science research. Natalie is super keen to improve the way science is financed (small projects need money too) and communicated.

SD: Tell us about yourself and how the idea behind Walacea came to you.

NJ: Well I came from a science background, pharmacology and nutrition specifically. I went on to work in the pharmaceutical industry for 5 years, and was effectively on the compliancy side. Ensuring that the sales force was trained and were capable of communicating the evidence of some product. However while working in pharma, I came to dislike the hierarchical structure of the corporate world, so I definitely wanted something new. At the same time, I was becoming acutely aware of the issues of funding within science and crowdfunding was picking up momentum, so why not merge the two?

SD: How did you go about picking up those initial science projects for Walacea?

NJ: The first thing was to contact the research councils to see if there were any projects that they were unable to fund, but I hit a brick wall with that tactic. Emailing scientists to see if they had projects that they'd be willing to experiment with crowdfunding for, perhaps the costing of the project was far below the level to fund through a grant, was another target, and I was able to get some interest from researchers at the University of Bristol. The first projects that signed up raised very little, but the platform saw huge success when the LSD brain imaging study was posted. This project was driven by Professor David Nutt and the Beckley Foundation's Psychedelic Research Programme. This had an original funding target of £25,000 but has far exceeded that (Author note: at the time of writing this piece, the project has received £53,390). This had a lot to do with outside attention; Reddit, Facebook and Twitter all played a role in enhancing the project's public profile, and it led to it being 50% funded within 36 hours.

SD: One of the issues of getting external funding sources involved in science is there's no immediate reward or clear path to ROI, how do you address that?

NJ: You're right in that there's no immediate, tangible reward. However that doesn't mean it's without incentives. Raising funds and by extension raising awareness on some area of research can be just as fulfilling. We've found that people want to be involved, and be engaged with the scientists' work; so participation is its own reward. In terms of the specific reward structures on Walacea, many perks are geared towards outreach for that specific bit of science. This can include online seminars, Q&As. We really wanted to play on experiential perks rather than giving people more stuff. People have enough stuff already and adding another crappy mug to a collection isn't going to bring people in. You don't have to offer perks with Walacea projects but people tend to pledge higher amounts when they're available.

SD: How did you build up the skill-set to actualise Walacea?

NJ: Youtube. Youtube has been my friend throughout; online tutorials have been hugely useful for the website. And I can't leave out the importance of networking. If I needed to learn something, I would go and find someone that could do that thing, those people that had that expertise, and ask them. The value of mentors cannot be understated.

SD: When people start projects, they tend to overthink, they get lost in the preparation, when they should be of the 'just do' mindset. How does that reflect your approach? 

NJ: I always had a goal of what I wanted to achieve next. I didn't give myself deadlines, and in general I would say my working style has been quite 'reactive'. I would need to learn X so I'd point myself in that direction and go and learn it. The real structure that I applied was simply making sure I filled the hours with productive work, I would make sure I achieved something in the time dedicated to this project.

SD: Why do you think Walacea is necessary if funds already come from the public purse through taxation?

NJ: The value of Walacea is that you can contribute funds, and thus participate in research that is close to you. There's no guarantee that that will specifically be funded via the traditional grant route. I believe there's a lot of power in supplementing government funding with crowdfunding for specific research areas.

SD: Walacea then isn't looking to replace traditional funding routes, right?

NJ: Crowdfunding is really good and really consistent for £3k projects where no grant is required. For the researchers it means their destiny is in their own hands and the hands of those that are supportive. There is of course also scope, as we saw with the LSD trial for larger scale projects - those with the capacity to go viral, to really gain traction in the wider community. Getting corporates involved is also something to be promoted. Although the precedent set in terms of a hesitancy to publish negative studies, or the publication of puff-piece studies, might put some researchers off, there's a lot to be gained. Corporate science funding has a lot to offer, however the issue of bias is something to watch out for. I think crowdfunding could be supplementary to funds coming from the corporate space and the transparency of the platform is very positive, perhaps it can offset that bias

SD: How can the public ensure that the most impactful science is funded? 

NJ: Funding bodies do check the quality. As Walacea grows we would like implement a peer review type system within the platform. Currently research councils rank journals on a 'fundable' scale. But there's a disparity between those that exceed that threshold and those that actually get funding, purely down to the financial resources available. There's also some dubious 'criteria' that is in place in the traditional funding scheme; for instance a recent publication enhances your profile, and is that really the best metric of future success? There will be some crowdfunded research that doesn't work, but I think the power of this is building public support of some areas of science, and building the network of the researcher.

SD: We are talking about the disruption of science in all its forms, and funding is of course an area you are passionate about. But what other areas are ripe for change?

NJ: Communication to the general public. There needs to be a recognition that people really are interested in science. Making science more open is a big thing. Integrating into the platform the data and findings of the studies, in a way that's understandable to everyone. I think its ridiculous that you can do fascinating research but then write it up in such a boring way that no-one wants to read it. I'd love for people to come to Walacea to find out about science that's needing funds, or that has been funded in a palatable way. That would be a huge win!

Thanks to Natalie for speaking to us. Walacea is a fascinating concept and we're excited to follow the platform as it grows. Funding desperately needs more options beyond traditional grant panels - is crowdfunding the way forward?

Natalie Jonk: @nataliejonk

Walacea: @walacea_ &

Update: It was originally stated in the interview that the LSD study had raised 50% of its funds within a few days. We have updated the article to include the actual timeframe of 36 hours.