Last week I had the rather depressing task of announcing the end of our recent attempts to start a crowdfunding project. As I explained, the project essentially ended because the perceived risk of the project was too great. However, despite this failure I am determined to provide as much information as possible so that anyone wanting to try this for themselves can learn from where we went wrong.
I have already put up the majority of details on how the crowdfunding project was to be structured here and here (I also made a 4min video asking for money but I’m quite happy for that to never find its way online), but one thing I haven’t really dealt with is how we came to construct the project the way we did and how we dealt with the key challenges. The challenges raised internally were essentially split in to two key categories – intellectual property and public relations – both of which had further implications.
Project IP - Being an open access project the first hurdle we had to get over was the perception that the project might possible involve giving away valuable intellectual property. While other Universities have started wide adoption of the inevitable rise of open access science, we are a little behind and the University is protective of any existing or future IP. Our solution to this was to create a sensor project that was inherently un-patentable. While our sensor is certainly novel (as far as I know) it is actually a combination of several existing technologies that are well known. This combination approach by no means makes the development easy, as this combination has never been attempted before, but it does make the technology hard to protect. We argued that by revealing the project there was no IP to loose so no reason not to make it all public. After a little back and forth with our legal department this solution was deemed acceptable.
Discovered IP - Along side the IP behind the sensor, there was some concern that during the project IP may be generated that would again be potentially valuable to the University. The concern raised here is essentially, that if I discover cold fusion (seemed unlikely but hey, anything’s possible in science…!) during the project, who would own the IP as the discovery would be open access and therefore prevent any future patent protection. My solution to this was that as the project was being publicly backed to be open access, any IP generated should be similarly open access. It doesn’t seem very fair to have the public all chip in and pay for the project, only for us run off with any valuable IP. Besides, many other funding routes require the University to sacrifice their rights to the IP generated, so this isn’t all that different. The only change is that, rather than someone else running off with our IP, everyone gets to have the IP that was generated – which seems is more in the spirit of the project. I am unsure if this was an acceptable answer to the problem (we never got a clear answer), but if it wasn’t then I’m not sure I would have been comfortable running the project anyway.
Bad PR (project launch) - On first pass, I had assumed that open access science funded by the public, for the public should get people pretty excited – or at the very least ambivalent. It wasn’t until I gave it a bit more thought that I realised that just the existence of this project may have detractors. Obviously the project never actually launched but I could imagine two arguments that had a realistic chance of having been used against us. Firstly, people may react badly to a publicly funded University asking for yet more money from the public. There is a public perception that the Universities are constantly demanding higher fees and wanting more money to research ‘pointless things’. I’m not even going to touch on the grossly un-fair claims that scientists engage in ‘pointless research’ (e.g. best way to butter toast) as it has been well covered by other bloggers and stems from not enough education about how research actually works (hmm if only there was some kind of project that might educate people better…) However, especially in this time of austerity, of Universities asking for more public money might come off as slightly… err, hard to swallow. The second is slightly more serious – what if it is used as a political tool? Funding in Universities is just a teeni-weenie bit contentious and it could be construed as a case where a University is not properly served by the existing public spending and now has to beg for money in order to do the very work that it should be doing. This could then be used by anyone with an axe to grind, as a good example of why the current government funding model is failing… blah blah blah… While both of these are unlikely, they were outcomes that the University was obviously keen to avoid. Honestly, I had no idea how to tackle these – I could understand why this might come up but in the main, the only reaction I have ever seen to open-access projects is positive and supportive. If there was this kind of negative reaction to what is a broadly very positive and balanced project involving the public and schools, then those voices would surely be in the minority.
Bad PR (during project) - Thinking more practically – what if six months into the project, it turns out that our design was way off, and it becomes clear that the project can’t progress much further? This question I would answer in two ways : firstly, so what if it fails – projects don’t work out all the time; if I only ever worked on things I was certain of, then I’d never get any work done or science would be very very dull. Not talking about failures is a major problem in science and to be honest, I would be very proud be one of the few researchers that feels comfortable publishing their results even if it didn’t go according to plan. Secondly, I have never worked on a project that has failed that spectacularly as there are always more avenues of research to look at and other solutions to problems. The project could have been delayed due to some unforeseen issue, but I couldn’t see it failing completely in the first 12 months, especially as we had already done some very promising prelim work. Again, it is a part of science that things change and adapt as the project progresses – showing people this process was an integral reason for doing an open access project in the first place.
So I hope some of this article gave you a little more insight in to what we were trying to do, and into the issues and questions that the project raised. In some cases, these questions seemed easily resolved but others were much harder and I’m not sure we were clear enough about how these were either issues that didn’t exist or were much smaller issues than people believed. But as I explained at the beginning of my post, I hope that by sharing this on the blog someone else can see where we went wrong and hopefully do better!
If you have any comments or suggestions on any of the points raised, please let me know in the comments section. Also before I put this project to bed I wanted to take a moment to clear something up that’s been bothering me. Is it “crowd funding” or “crowdfunding”, I’ve had to write it a lot recently and I genuinely can’t make up my mind.