At some point in the last 10 years, a latte has become the currency of self-sacrifice needed to fuel any cause (as in, “for the cost of a daily latte, you could save for retirement”). So naturally, when I started a crowdfunding campaign for a new research project and wanted to estimate the number of people I needed to contribute a moderate amount of money, I divided my goal amount by the cost of a latte ($3). It turns out I needed 666.66 people. I’m not especially superstitious, but even setting aside the fact that my formula demands 2/3 of a person, it did cause me to pause and think about this phenomenon of crowdfunding as a way to fund scientific research, specifically conservation research. Is this the wave of the future, or a portent of darker things?
Crowdfunding – or raising money for art, science, or business ventures by asking for money from…well..a crowd of some sort – isn’t new. It’s been going on ever since the invention of the hat, which was then passed around. The new twist offered by crowdfunding today through venues like Kickstarter or RocketHub is that proximity to the hat is no longer necessary. Instead, the hat has divided and sent legions of mini-hats out into the world – and only the ones that fill up come back. So, if crowdfunding is a part of our future, our hats look more like webs, and the process of raising money relying on but also creating new networks between people around events and causes they care about.
I can’t help thinking a web has an advantage over the hat in having potential to create something lasting. We don’t generally reminisce about the time we dropped a dollar in a musician’s guitar case, or even have a sense that it made any difference. But webs are different – they can be saved and built upon over time. More than that, I think that as our conservation problems get more global in nature, we will need the solidarity of webs to avoid getting discouraged. Whether we care about saving sea turtles or conserving freshwater, there is a lot of value in far-ranging networks and knowing we aren’t alone. And crowdfunding gives everyone the chance to answer the question “Would you give up a latte to fund science?” I guess time will tell us the answer.