Public Interest Independent Research Labs

Tom Critchlow pulled together some approaches for how to think about funding independent research labs.

In his post he gathers inputs from a range of smart people, many of which you’ve encountered in quotes in my blog and newsletter before, like Matt Webb, Andy Matuschak and others.

Reading Tom’s post reminds me just how deeply I’m convinced that some of these (hypothetical, potential, as they don’t yet exist) independent research labs should be funded inside the market logic, others should exist very explicitly outside the market logic.

For some contexts, researching with an eye towards commercial applicability is a natural fit. For others, there simply is no “market” demand, but a very real “societal” demand. Trying to shoehorn these types of research projects into a commercially funded structure necessarily leads to subpar outcomes. It would be setting the labs and their projects up for failure.

Different contexts need different types of funding

Funding can come from many places, and certain types of funding are a great fit for certain kinds of research.

For example, there is a place for commercial, enterprise-level R&D departments that lead to marketable innovations or products. There are independent funding structures for individual researchers or artists, which is basically a fan-based approach. There’s academic research, of course. And there is publicly funded basic research, as well as applied research for certain applied areas like space exploration.

Personally, I’ve tried a few of these approaches. I’ve run a Kickstarter to develop a product (now on hiatus), for the fan-based approach. I’ve been part of an EU-funded PhD program as a supervisor. I’ve been involved in any number of research-y initiatives that my collaborators and I cross-subsidized through our client work, from publications to research trips to exhibitions. I’ve authored or co-authored any number of research reports exploring things for (both political and charitable) foundations. I’m currently running a self-initiated (member-supported) research project about how to think better about technology’s impact on society called Getting Tech Right.

In other words, I have some experience with the pros and cons of each of these approaches, and I can confirm the obvious: Depending on what you set out to do, some of these work better than others. There’s no silver bullet for funding. What works depends entirely on the context.

That said, there are areas, some maybe a little abstract, that I believe should be publicly funded. (If public funding is too tricky, foundations might be able to step up to get the ball rolling.) Anything to do with Public Interest Technology falls squarely in that category. A lot of work examining potential or real impact of technology on society belongs there. A lot of work on governance and consent in real-life context regarding data needs this.

If you attempt to approach an area of research with the wrong type of funding, it will invariably fail. Any money isn’t necessarily better than no money. What it takes is the right type of money. 

In other words:

I think there’s a real and important role to play for publicly funded, but largely independent research labs. 

These independent, publicly funded research labs could come with various focus areas (design, governance, public interest tech…), with different mission statements. They should probably be staunchly interdisciplinary. And they should share their research and results openly.