June 15, 2013, by Brigitte Nerlich

Making science in public: Kickstarters – promises and perils

A few weeks ago my son showed me a ‘new thing’ he had discovered online. It was a ‘kickstarter’ for a publishing project called ‘to be or not to be that is the adventure’. I thought it looked like good fun, especially since the creator is Ryan North whose Dinosaur Comics I sometimes read. A bit later I came across some other ‘kickstarters’ relating to science and technology which made me think more seriously about this new phenomenon.


As Wikipedia points out, “Kickstarter is one of a number of crowd funding platforms for gathering money from the public, which circumvents traditional avenues of investment. Project creators choose a deadline and a minimum funding goal. If the goal is not met by the deadline, no funds are collected….Money pledged by donors is collected using Amazon Payments. The platform is open to backers from anywhere in the world and to creators from the US or the UK.” You can now even buy a book entitled “Kickstarter handbook: Real-life crowd funding success stories”.

In the creative industries (publishing, gaming and so on) kickstarters are causing a stir, as they may pose a threat to older industry models and may even cause problems for those who are successful in attracting (too much) money. I’ll here focus on kickstarters related to science and technology and their possible implications for ‘public involvement’ with science. I’ll start with two examples which have attracted some public debate. There are however quite a few science-related kickstarters which are much less controversial. I should also point out that kickstarters are not only used to transform science funding and public involvement with science; there is also a kickstarter for ‘public humanities’.

Glowing plants

One kickstarter project is based on advances in synthetic biology and promises to develop glowing plants that provide ‘natural’ light without electricity. Backers of the project who pledge money get rewards that range from T-shirts featuring images of glowing plants to a personal message encoded in the DNA of the new plants. The campaign was launched by three ‘biohackers’, as detailed in this article in Scientific American, but it is also supported by synthetic biology giants such as George Church.

As with the gaming kickstarters, there seems to be a problem emerging from attracting too much money. As one of the people involved in the project said: “Where have we overpromised? What could we deliver? The science is still going to be challenging, and we’re not going to be replacing 60-watt lightbulbs with a plant anytime soon.” (quoted in Scientific American article). So, delivery of glowing plants to your bed-side table is still a while off. In the meantime resistance to the project is emerging, from the ETC Group who have launched a kickstopper campaign, to Friends of the Earth, to the Guardian and so on.

Interestingly, one of the promoters, Antony Evans, points out that the plants themselves or the products of the project may be less important than the process of engaging people/the public/the crowd with synthetic biology: “to inspire people and educate them about this technology”. This campaign has certainly opened up a new space for public debate about synthetic biology and its ethical and regulatory implications which wasn’t there before. Fuel to the debate has been added after a ruling by the US Supreme Court that naturally occurring DNA cannot be patented by engineered one can.

In 2009/10 the BBSRC in the UK convened a synthetic biology public dialogue, at a time when synthetic biology was still mainly fiction. Perhaps it’s time to convene another public dialogue now that we have, so to speak, been there, done that and got the T-shirt. Such engagement with members of the public, those directly engaged in this kickstarter, those opposed to it and those who have never heard of it, may be useful, as a possible revolt against ‘glowing plants’ could damage the reputation of the whole field of synthetic biology as well as that of other, less controversial, crowd-sourced science projects.

Mining asteroids

Another fascinating kickstarter project is a campaign to elicit “public participation in a planned privately owned asteroid-hunting telescope … called ARKYD”. It “is the initial component of a wide-ranging plan to mine near-Earth orbiting asteroids for metals, minerals and other materials. It is being designed and built by Planetary Resources, whose investors include Google founders Larry Page and Eric Schmidt.” In this YouTube video the science communicator Hank Green provides an overview of the project. He stresses that the space telescope can be used by everybody, not just those trying to engage in asteroid mining. The project has 15 days to go (as of 15 June, while I am writing) and has not yet quite reached its 1,000,000-dollar goal.

Questions, questions…

Are kickstarters, such as the glowing plants one, “the democratic cash-raising method of our age par excellence” (perhaps like subscription was in the 18th century)? Are they, as Hilary Sutcliffe exclaimed on twitter on 22 May, “the sharp end of public involvement”?. Are they perhaps even the ultimate form of ‘upstream engagement’, which means “to engage the public meaningfully in very early stages of research and development”? Are they a new form of ‘open science‘? In some sense they are but in others they aren’t. (And they are, of course, not all the same)

Who is ‘the public’ or the ‘crowd’ in these crowd-sourcing projects? The asteroid project talks about “public participation in a planned privately owned asteroid-hunting telescope…”. Public participation refers here to those who pledge small amounts of money to have a little share in the excitement of space exploration, that is fans, friends, admirers and enthusiasts. There are of course also big donors. These so-called ‘backers’ are in a way the patrons of the project they support, want to see created and also use. In the case of the asteroid project their reward is ultimately access to the telescope which they can use to take photos of the earth.

Who ‘profits’ from public participation in ‘private’ enterprise, such as the space telescope? Obviously, the private individuals (project creators) who want to mine asteroids or mass-manufacture glowing plant may profit financially from these ventures, if they succeed. In the meantime ‘the crowd’ profits in other ways, but getting backer rewards of various kinds (examples here), by being part of a project and ultimately being able to use it (in the case of the gaming kickstarters, play the game that’s created). Some say scientists who engage in crowd funding projects may profit from their involvement because they learn how to communicate with ‘the public’. So there may be indirect benefits for public engagement with science. Engagement here is probably quite close to what one may call ‘user’ engagement or (virtual) community involvement. One can even talk of public-private partnerships.

Some see kickstarters in science as an alternative to outmoded and indeed dwindling forms of science funding. Some see them as democratising science or as a new form of citizen science. This democracy is however probably limited to already engaged and attentive citizens and, of course, citizens that can pledge money.

There are of course also drawbacks, especially when this form of ‘democratic’ ‘public involvement’ creeps into ethically challenging domains of scientific research, where what is needed is not so much crowd-funding and enthusiasm but crowd-debate about ethics and regulation.


One blogger observing the kickstarter movement has pointed out that: “Kickstarter isn’t just a way to find alternate funding, it’s a goldrush, with all the risk and possible reward implied by that term.” In the United States the California goldrush of the 19th century was part of the search for wealth at the Western frontier. In 1893, the American historian Frederick Jackson Turner published an essay entitled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” which advanced the so-called “Frontier Thesis” of American history. He argued that American democracy grew out of pioneer or frontier endeavours. But he also claimed that the growth of the American nation would inevitably destroy the frontier as an open living wilderness, which had initially contributed to the creation of the nation’s character.

Kickstarters are yet another ‘frontier’ in science/society interactions, a frontier that fits the increasingly market-based research and engagement landscape.  As a supporter of the space telescope campaign said: “With continuing NASA budget cuts, it seems like the development of the space frontier is more and more in the hands of everyday citizens.” The question is: Will science/technology kickstarters be just another ‘cowboy economy’, “where industries metaphorically leave their campfire ashes behind and move on to a new frontier” (Considine, 2002) once the ‘bubble’ has burst ? What would that mean for science, public involvement in science and technology, science communicating and also responsible innovation?

At the moment kickstarters in science are fascinating in various ways, as they may open up science to a certain proportion of ‘the masses’, but may also open up ethical and regulatory minefields. They are also interesting public-private hybrids. Kickstarters really are ‘at the sharp end of public involvement’.

Image: Daniel Lobo, Wikimedia commons: A mural at the Tepantitla complex of Teotihuacan

Posted in public engagement with science