The Decentralized Science Movement
Exploring the potential of blockchain technology and tokenized communities in taking academic research to the next level.
By Forefront and Esha Bora - Jul 19, 2022
Forefront Journal publishes essays from the frontier of web3 social and tokenized communities. This is a guest essay from Esha Bora, member of Texas Blockchain club.
Covid-19 brought upon a time of uncertainty and fear in our ability to handle a crisis of that magnitude. Large numbers of people were being wiped out by the minute. Social practices changed as 'quarantining' and 'social distancing' were added to our lexicon. Scientists were working day and night to find a solution to our disrupted way of life.
These challenges accompanied a whole new set of lessons that challenged everything we knew about conducting research. Was time and money being used effectively? Was information about the virus properly communicated to the public? Covid-19 ultimately forced us to ponder something even bigger than the pandemic: is our research infrastructure as efficient as it could be?
Academic research is currently faced with a plethora of problems including inefficient communication, lack of funding, biased decision-making, and withering core principles. The way money and time is managed is highly ineffective relative to the stakes of research output that has the ability to literally save people's lives. Every year, billions of dollars go to waste as scientific research goes unpublished or uncommunicated to the rest of the scientific community. Researchers who are meant to use their knowledge and creativity to tackle the world's most important questions instead find themselves spending months or even years writing grant proposals or scraping together funding.
Government-funded grants and a few top journals have a near-absolute grip over the majority of the scientific community. In fact, five journals currently control more than 50% of the 19 billion dollar academic publishing industry.
The problems that plague academic research go beyond just one or two small issues: the current system needs a structural change. Social challenges and the growing scope of discovery in academia demands a faster pace of research, and it is crucial that scientists have the infrastructure and support to meet that need. The experiments with integrating immutable blockchains and tokenized communities into scientific research being done by the decentralized science (DeSci) movement could be the key to unlocking this potential.
Science Beyond Borders
So much scientific research in the world never sees the light of day. Research either goes unpublished because of "fruitless" results, gets trapped behind paywalls, or simply doesn't reach its intended audience. Because of this, billions of dollars get wasted conducting research which has already been done in other parts of the world. Various studies and examples of efficient research environments like the Cold Spring Harbor Lab indicate that research is so much more fruitful when scientists are able to communicate with other researchers both in and outside of their field. However, even then, scientists' main source of interaction with other new scientists other than their own colleagues and previous connections is at events like conferences which often occur annually or biannually and mostly within their own concentrations.
If scientists could meet people in other fields from anywhere around the world, they could work to put together their different micro-expertise and optimize their skills and resources. Additionally, some labs lack access to expensive equipment which limits their ability to conduct specific projects. A unique solution proposed by LabDAO is LabExchange, a "DAO governed peer-to-peer exchange for data-generating laboratory services." Through their program, a scientist from India could recruit a scientist in Norway to carry out a lab procedure for a small fee. The Indian scientist can save money because she no longer has to purchase lab equipment which may only be used a few times, and both parties benefit financially, all while a valuable global connection is made which could lead to future partnerships.
Furthermore, DAOs and blockchain data platforms allow scientists to gain more access to current research and projects happening all around the world. Immutable ledger technology enables scientists to share ideas with others with less fear of it being copied or stolen, since the blockchain creates a credible record of which projects and ideas preceded others. Current DAOs in the space, like LabDAO, eventually aim to create an "open lab" environment to accelerate development in the biosciences, similar to how open source code changed the game for development in information technology.
With online communities created by DAOs, communication with other academic experts also no longer has to be limited to annual conferences. Traditionally, scientists may need to extensively search for the proper partnerships and resources and also carry the burden of verifying them as a reliable source to communicate with. However, the implementation of specialized DAOs and marketplace protocols for science tools and services can help scientists find the exact people and resources they need in a secure, timely, and transparent manner. DAOs and blockchain can allow scientists to break geographic boundaries and create modern, global lab teams to optimize the specialized expertise of scientists around the world.
Scientists' careers are dependent on how much and where they get published. Sadly, many scientists either do not receive funding or do not get published due to the decision of a very small group of people. Though these few panelists are experts in their field, their views may not be representative of what other experts and researchers in the field believe is most beneficial for the overall progress of that discipline or its beneficiaries. There have also been various instances of bias in the way funding is allocated. The National Institutes of Health recognizes how the history of systemic racism affects the way their grants are awarded today, acknowledging that "black researchers are funded at a rate barely half that of white researchers."
An approach to mitigating this has been explored by VitaDAO, a project focusing on longevity research. Their token-based ecosystem is driven by community participation through their VITA governance token. Through their three step governance model consisting of ideation through Discord, discussion through Discourse, and voting through Snapshot, VitaDAO allows the community to drive decisions on DAO-wide projects and funding allocation. The community voting on project ideas, consists of science experts, research beneficiaries (patients), and other important stakeholders. The beauty of this model, as opposed to traditional community groups, is that the DAO's smart contract technology enables the community to have a communally-governed treasury that is able to securely distribute community-allocated funds without a central authority. Whether funding research or free services for patients, the community gets to decide how their money is used. People are no longer just bound together by their similar stakeholder interests, but they also share a responsibility of deciding what's best for their community.
The various possible implementations of token based ecosystems in science are yet to be discovered. Tokens could help build things like reputation systems for scientists, in which scientists get rewarded tokens for doing important, but previously unprofitable tasks like peer-reviewing. These tokens could be a way for others to scope the credibility or expertise of a scientist, and could even be used as a way for scientists to vote in academic organizations based on their contributions. Blockchain-enabled tokenization opens up a whole new avenue for governance and community participation in a transparent yet secure manner.
Funding...For the People, By the People
Research is generally funded either by taxpayer money.) in the form of government grants from organizations like the National Science Foundation or National Institutes of Health in the United States. However, acquiring grants is a tedious and difficult process. Preparing each new proposal takes around 38 days, not counting the extra 28 days if it needs to be resubmitted. Even after spending so much of their career writing proposals, most researchers are not able to acquire funding given the fairly low funding rate such as the <25% rate in 2017.
Some disciplines get much more funding allocation depending on overall urgency and the number of people impacted. This could result in scientists having to choose research topics and projects based on what gets funded rather than what they want to research, or what is beneficial for people. This introduces a lot of bias to the way science is executed. Many areas of research like digestive diseases get less funding, around $2.4 billion, as opposed to areas like genetics that receive around $11 billion. Naturally, more researchers may lean towards areas or topics of science where their chances of receiving more funding are higher.
In order to bridge this "valley of death" - a term coined to describe the lack of funding between basic and clinical research - MoleculeDAO introduced IP-NFTs. IP-NFTs are a legal contract protecting a piece of intellectual property integrated with a non-fungible token governed by a smart contract. In Molecule's marketplace, researchers (the sellers) can be funded by investors (the buyers) such that the rights of the intellectual property can be transferred to the buyer - all through a single blockchain transaction. An early adopter was VitaDAO, who funded $250,000 to the Scheibye-Knudsen Laboratory and was granted IP rights in return through an IP-NFT. This method of funding enables the public to be a part of the funding process rather than keeping financing limited to just government grants or big pharmaceutical companies buying research. Lastly, when a DAO, a potential buyer of IP-NFTs, conducts any further transactions with their IP-NFT, the money they earn typically goes back into buying more IP-NFTs, thus funding even more research, similar to the VitaDAO model.
IP-NFT funding can hopefully coexist with current government-funded research to ensure that a diverse selection of science concentrations are being funded. Overlooked research areas that often lack funding, such as rare diseases, may no longer have to compete for money.
A common criticism of decentralized science and especially tokenized scientific ecosystems is that some aspects of it like receiving tokens for peer-reviewing are too "gamified," and could take away from the sense of duty of a scientist. The definition of a "scientists' duty," however, is very up in the air. For example, when asked about their motivation behind peer reviewing- an essential, but often unprofitable service - 40.8% of researchers considered peer review to be a part of their duty. Others were motivated to conduct peer revisions to stay informed on current scientific literature, ensure quality of research, or repay others for review done on their own work.
A paper indicated that scientists "donated" around 100 million hours to peer review in 2020 - a billion dollar donation of researchers' time. Even though so much time is spent peer-reviewing, this process is considered "broken" by many experts in the field because it is inefficient. For example, journals ask reviewers to complete their task in about 3-4 weeks, but they are not able to enforce this in any way. Moreover, based on a series of experiments, studies have indicated that reviews are often very inconsistent, slow, and biased.
Traditional processes like this in science have been around for a long time and start to get considered a part of a scientists' role. However, the trade-off for trying to maintain this "tradition" and not attempting to change the system is inefficiency and lack of quality. Though the changes that tokenization or blockchain platforms bring may seem "gamified" to some, it could be a novel and effective way of reinforcing the basic principles of science like peer-reviewing.
Another possible challenge in decentralized research environments is a few players with a lot of capital gaining too much influence in some areas of science. For example, in phase three of VITA's voting process, members cast votes on Snapshot, with one VITA token equalling one vote. Essentially, voting power depends on the amount of tokens a person holds, which are usually acquired by buying or working for the organization. The fear in cases like this is that if a person or single entity buys a lot of tokens, they can use that power to influence decisions. In VitaDAO's case, they take caution by limiting the amount of tokens per address, conducting voting in a three stage process in which only the last stage requires tokens to vote, and allowing for amendments to the governance process based on community input.
Decentralized science platforms are still very early in development, and there are many aspects yet to be pieced together. Builders like Professor Philipp Koellinger, co-founder of DeSci Labs, are aware of the importance of tokenomics in science, but they also recognize that the path to it will be slow because the tokenomics models will have to be very well thought out. As the decentralized science communities will work together to create tokenomics models suitable for academia, they can work to avert situations in which whales gain excessive power by means of their money, whether this is by limiting the percentage of tokens people can buy or putting in place multiple phases of voting that do not all require tokens, like in VitaDAO's model.
The ~~Social~~ Science Network
Funding research with DAOs and tokens and creating specialized DAOs that work in tandem with governments and universities to respond to scientific challenges are all possible implementations of decentralized science as the technology and regulations develop. Blockchain has the potential to revolutionize science: it can create tools that help existing researchers collaborate and fund work more efficiently, as well as a new type of research group that complements and improves on current research infrastructure.
Niklas Rindtorff of LabDAO describes the web-native scientific stack as a three step process of funding, execution, and distribution. Various DAOs like VitaDAO, LabDAO, and MoleculeDAO fit somewhere within these three layers, and have the potential to lead this nascent movement. The innovation in scientific processes brought by blockchain and tokenized economies has a long way to go, but it is crucial that it is properly managed and supported. Implementation will be a huge challenge, but it has the potential to improve many gaps in existing research infrastructure.