The Impact of Social Media on Scientific Discovery

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The Georgetown University Center for Social Impact Communication

Social media and marketing campaigns have shifted the way science is funded, practiced, and communicated in America. The burgeoning American cultural movement of “science philanthropy,” is a controversial yet effective means to skirt the ponderous federal budget process and spur scientific discovery and innovation at the pace of “business,” rather than academia. Crowdfunding allows for the general public to support and participate in scientific discovery, as well as allowing scientists to communicate their work, passion, and results directly to the public.

Governmental funding for scientific research seeks to “level the playing field” among the nation’s scientific investigators, based on research priorities that are set by Congress based on need and strategy. (What are the biggest most pressing concerns for millions of Americans? What do we need to perform research on now to mitigate the problems that will face the country 25 years, or more, in the future?). The process is long and slow. Researchers write grants that are rigorously evaluated and highly competitive for the small pool of available funding, receiving that funding can take years.

In the past few years, federal budget stalemates and partisan in-fighting have decimated many government funded scientific research initiatives. Dozens of academic scientists have been laid off, projects have been shut down and shelved mid-discovery, many labs have closed entirely. In the realm of basic biomedical research, nationwide, roughly 16 percent of scientists in 2012 with sustaining National Institutes of Health (NIH) (known as “R01”) grants lost them in 2013, according to one analysis. That amounts to 3,500 scientists nationwide trying to find money to keep their labs afloat. Since 2004, the NIH budget has decreased by more than 20 percent.

Scientists are turning more and more frequently to non-traditional sources of philanthropic funding- frequently “crowdfunding” campaigns. The scientific community views this change in funding strategy with ambivalence. Why?

For one, privately raised capital, can and does play favorites, and these favorites often break down along geographic, economic, and racial lines. Crowdfunded research campaigns are often won on “personality and likeability,” emotional traits that would never be evaluated in a true scientific proposal, and their success is highly dependent on the researcher’s sphere of influence.

Disease research, for example, is particularly prone to unequal attention along racial and economic lines. A look at recent major philanthropic initiatives suggests that a number of social media campaigns, (often driven by driven by personal catastrophe), target illnesses that predominantly afflict mainly Caucasians — cystic fibrosis, melanoma, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) Association in the “Ice Bucket Challenge” for instance.

However, crowdfunding undeniably accelerates the pace of research. Supporters of the Ice Bucket Challenge ended up raising over $115 million for the A.L.S. Association, $77 million dollars of that went to research, the rest went to community services, education and … more fundraising ($3 million dollars) and an astounding $2 million dollars went to “payment and processing fees.” Some of the research monies were allocated to a global gene-sequencing effort called Project Min-E. A.L.S. researchers have already discovered a new gene, NEK1, which is implicated in 3% of all A.L.S cases (NEK1 Variants Confer Susceptibility to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, Nature Genetics, Volume 48, Number 9, September 2016.)

Significant amounts of capital have been raised in this incremental way with social media being the key driver that makes these campaigns go “viral”: the ARKYD project raised more than 1.5 million dollars to launch a publicly accessible telescope, and the OpenWorm project, a digital simulation of the entire Caenorhabditis elegans organisms; OpenTrons project, automated robots for molecular biology laboratories; and Parallella, a low-cost supercomputer all raised $100,000 and up to one million dollars USD.

No one, either in or out of government, has been comprehensively tracking the magnitude and impact of crowdunded science. These success stories are attractive but, crowdfunding campaigns are not a miraculous solution, they require a significant investment of time and effort in science outreach., which takes scientist away from the bench. Often, half as much is spent in advertising and processing fees as is raised in these campaigns. Is that the best use of the public’s funds?

Engaging the public challenges scientists in new ways as well. They must be clear, engaging, and “likeable.” Successful campaigns go beyond the “technical” and present the “whys” of the proposed work, leveraging sociological, historical, economic and/or environmental perspectives. This can be an enormous challenge to scientists, who have perfected the suppression of potentially- biasing emotion toward their work, who regularly communicate in the stilted language of government grants, and who publish their research findings in dry-academic journals where they will be mostly hidden from public view behind paywalls.

As with many types of inequalities in many communities, the thought leaders of the scientific communication (SciCom) community have a responsibility to recognize and lessen the “digital divide,” that inequity in access, education, income, and sphere of influence will impact the types of research that gets funded and if not addressed, this gap will only widen. The Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication and Waggener Edstrom Worldwide recently studied the perceptions, behavior and motivations for cause support (locally and globally) among digitally engaged American adults, the results of which could be highly instructive insights for diverse socio — economic communities that are trying to raise funds for under-represented research causes, such as; transsexual, lesbian, gay, and bisexual health, children’s mental health, eating disorders, suicide, migraines. Providing instruction in the motivations and roadblocks of those who donate (mitigating skepticism, minimizing the collection of personal information, increasing transparency, including an offline component to the cause, effectively communicating results), to scientists or non-profit research institutions with limited spheres of influence and underrepresented causes, could have a large impact in the success of these campaigns.

Another point of contention is that women have been historically underrepresented and their research underfunded in STEM fields. Recent analyses show that women excel at crowdfunding campaigns by leveraging their social networks to create a wave of sustainable “buzz” more effectively, and through the of use emotive, positive, and vivid language that propels their campaigns forward. Social media campaigns designed by men tend to use dry un-emotional business language. This could indicate a trend toward more female scientists closing the funding gap for their own research, but without systemic biases being addressed from the top down within granting organizations.

Lastly, several organizations have analyzed the perceived attractiveness, skin tone, and weight of those seeking funding. Implicit discrimination characterizes lending decisions, with the bias towards thinner, lighter skin-toned, and more attractive individuals. Implicit discrimination can be quantified. For example, on the platform Kiva, for a loan of $700, the beautiful received the equivalent of a $60 bonus. Recipients who were overweight or had relatively dark skin, on the other hand, would suffer penalties of roughly $65 and $40, respectively.

Crowdfunding’s contribution to overall levels of scientific funding, its distribution across different types of research, and the complex relationship between science philanthropy, public funding for research, and the frontiers of scientific progress are poorly understood. It is important for policy makers, science communicators, and those seeking funding to be aware of, and instructed in the factors affecting cause support.

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The Center for Social Impact Communication

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