Lately, we have been writing more about blockchain, Web3, NFTs, and their application in the real world. After all, for widespread use to occur, the sector needs to move on from hypothetical blockchain use cases and speculative investment in collectibles, to technology that helps citizens around the world live a better life.
As we covered in our recent blog on bull and bear market development, we can definitely see a maturation in the market. Blockchain is tackling environmental issues, playing a bigger role in the creation, transfer and democratization of cultural assets, and now, touching on knowledge.
Just this week, the CEO of Pearson, the educational publisher, claimed the company was looking into NFTs as a way to make sure that they could see some of the money that comes from the reselling of their textbooks. At the moment, a Pearson textbook could be bought once but resold many times as they are passed down to different students. While this is yet to be put into practice, it feeds into the current phase of blockchain and crypto — we are passing pure hype and moving into practical solutions.
One area that is ripe for change and is slowly being talked about more in terms of decentralization is scientific research. The whole world benefits from scientific study and breakthroughs, yet the process of research, publication, and access is controlled by big publishers, who, as we will see, not only influence what gets published, but gain massive profits from work that is publicly funded.
DeSci, or decentralized science, is looking to bring sorely needed change, with what Ethereum concisely describes as “a global, open alternative to the current scientific system”. In this blog we will look at:
- Scientific research as it is now
- How decentralized science works
- Three unique projects in this space.
The current state of scientific research
Scientific research is essential to making sure that we continue to develop as a species, adapt to a changing world, and find ways of treating illnesses that plague people around the globe. Despite being largely funded by governments with taxpayers’ money, results of this research are subject to control and profit-making. Here are some of the issues that are apparent with the situation as it is now.
The problem with scientific publishing
A scientist is mainly judged by metrics tied to their peer-reviewed published works in prestigious journals such as Cell, for-profit publications that are purchased by universities and individuals around the world. As with every business that wants to maximize revenue, there is a tendency to favor the novel or the sensational over what may be of greater value.
This shows the dilemma that scientists (and those that fund the science), subject to competition, find themselves in:
- Do they undertake work that may be dry but is nevertheless necessary, at the risk their work will not be published?
- Or do they focus on areas that bring more attention, leading to more funding for those involved, and accolades for the scientist/institution?
Publishing brings up another problem that those in the community are well aware of, but outsiders may not have considered — how does publicly funded research end up in private hands?
- Scientific research is funded by the government (in turn funded by the taxpayer).
- Peer review, checking the research’s scientific validity, is undertaken for free by scientists on a volunteer basis.
- The work is then given to publishers for free, whose editors judge whether it will go in the journal.
- Universities and government-funded academic institutions then buy back the work so that students and academics can gain access to the research.
As a recent long read in the Guardian points out, this is staggeringly profitable for publishers:
Elsevier’s [one of the leading journal’s] scientific publishing arm reported profits of £724m on just over £2bn in revenue. It was a 36% margin – higher than Apple, Google, or Amazon posted that year.
It is also a staggering waste of taxpayer funds.
What about work that is not published? This leads to redundancy in research. If your work doesn’t see the light of day, how will other scientists know that it’s an area that has already been explored? As a recent article in the online magazine FreeThink points out, even negative results are results, and a lack of transparency in their reporting can mean that other researchers may waste money exploring the same area and receiving the same negative results.
Government funds are used to fund research — but what if they government has a particular ideology, or see results they think may go against the morals of the country. This can happen in any country, even those that we call democratic. Whoever controls the money has the influence, which is why scientists could be censored or self-censor in order to make sure they continue to receive the funds they need to undertake work.
While we have touched on four pressing areas, there are of course other drawbacks, summed up by Ethereum’s overview of DeSci.
How decentralized science works
Within what is widely acknowledged as a vital, yet broken system, we see the emergence of DeSci, claiming to be able to harness Web3 and blockchain-based solutions to provide a better system of funding, improve access to all, and help the people who fund scientific research to become stakeholders in the process, taking power back from the hands of the few.
Advantages of decentralized science
Here are some of the positives we can see being brought to the field of science by utilizing blockchain technology and Web3 principles.
Rare disease research – Especially in the US where private pharmaceutical companies are incentivized to conduct research into areas that bring greater profits, science DAOs can be set up to look into rare diseases and conditions, funded directly by stakeholders.
Tokens for peer-reviewing work – As mentioned above, peer review is a task undertaken voluntarily by scientists. Why should their expertise and time go unrewarded? To incentivize more qualified specialists and also properly remunerate those who review work, token incentives or a stake in a platform’s DAO could go some way to remedying the imbalance that we currently see.
Rewards for scientists outside of publishing – There are other small jobs, such as sharing and curating work that aren’t directly related to research and peer review, but are nonetheless valuable in ensuring that studies are able to be easily located and gain the prominence they deserve. Those that undertake this work can be incentivized with tokens or roles within a decentralized blockchain scientific publishing platform.
NFT-IP tokens – We are now just seeing the beginning of what NFTs are able to offer. Incorporated into Web3, everyday documentation can be transparently recorded and transferred with efficiency and often without the need for middlemen.
As the Tokenizer recently reported, NFTs also have a use case in the messy area of intellectual property (IP). The European company Nevermined has developed an NFT for science that not only records the ownership of research, but also allows it to easily enter marketplaces like the one developed by Molecule. Investors can shop for these NFT-IP tokens, giving direct funding to important and innovative projects, removing some of the legal complexity that would otherwise be involved.
One of the big ideas behind decentralized science is the issue of universal access. Why should research that is publicly subsidized be hidden in journals that are expensive to get a hold of? DeSci projects that utilize blockchain for scientific research aim to democratize knowledge, with platforms that can be accessed by anybody.
New funding mechanisms
Access to research is one key aspect of decentralization; another is making sure that big conglomerates or large scale investors don’t hoover up all the profits. Different platforms can be set up where funds are created to perpetuate the cycle of funding, and small-scale investors for research into rare disease treatment can see some of the benefits when a solution comes to light.
We’ve already mentioned P2P funding, but there is also quadratic funding, whereby the amount of individual small donations in a project is used to determine the amount of bigger investment funding. What we can see is sped up grant processes and funding that is not as beholden to special interests.
Three interesting DeSci projects
Despite the fact that this area is only just developing, there are already a range of projects that aiming to take the sector forward. Here are just three of them:
DeSciWorld aims to build a large scientific community where participants can get involved regardless of their background or qualifications, unlocking potential that is missed in the conventional scientific world.
People can learn, discuss scientific issues with like-minded people, invest in scientific research by connecting with scientists, and receive a stake in the platform through NFT purchases.
LabDAO is a community of both scientists and engineers, committed to creating open-source blockchain tools that can be used by users around the world, democratizing and accelerating participation in scientific research.
The ability to connect to others is key, with LabExchange facilitating the fair exchange of services through blockchain-based contract, and LabTeams, where interested parties can join (or start) a virtual lab, made up of individuals working to a specific goal.
VitaDAO is a fundraising platform with a biotechnology focus, beginning in 2021 with the aim of funding longevity research. While the big ticket projects focus on reversing ageing, there is also funding that goes to areas such as periodontal disease, an area that is of immediate concern for many people.
The project has hit some impressive targets: according to an article from June celebrating their 1-year anniversary, the DAO works with over 200 projects, ten of which have received between US $50k and $1 million. They DAO also has 7000+ community members and 1200+ token holders, who help govern the organization.
According to VitaDAO’s website, funding projects allows the DAO to retain a stake in the IP of projects, represented by NFTs. Having a stake in the success of research gives holders an incentive to stay engaged and find ways increase the prominence of the work being undertaken.
While decentralized science certainly looks great on paper, there are some issues that should not be overlooked. Listed below are some of the most prominent ones.
No guarantees of important disease funding
In our list of positives, we talked about the ability for people to fund causes that are important to them; however, this is no guarantee. There aren’t many people around the world who can afford to throw thousands of dollars at a time at research projects, especially those who suffer from chronic diseases that have no cure.
As we see with VitaDAO, some of the most popular projects are ones that are to do with anti-ageing. This is a very Silicon Valley preoccupation that doesn’t reflect the needs of people who may be suffering daily from curable diseases that aren’t as headline grabbing, and thus don’t get such a large share of funds.
Less rigour in choosing quality projects
We can talk about the inefficiencies of grant processes and wasted taxpayer money, but at the end of the day, many extremely important scientific discoveries have been made in the public realm and then used to help the general population. Often, funding is decided by experts with experience. Would a random collection of people making quick decisions about projects, often based on their own self interest be better at funding research for the collective good?
Outsized DAO participation by big interests
Most people dislike the monopoly big pharma has, which is why putting control back in the hands of the people is so appealing. But, as we have seen with other DAOs, what is to stop control falling into the hands of those with the most governance tokens? Can they always be trusted with something as important as intellectual property rights for potentially life-changing solutions.
The diversity question
Decentralized science is available to those that don’t just have the funds, but also the tech infrastructure and knowledge to enter this space. While decentralized services are technically open to all, it is naive to think that a well-off digital native will have the same access as individuals from developing countries.
Blockchain for science: what have we learnt
It is commendable that blockchain and NFTs as part Web3 are maturing to the point where real-world considerations have gone beyond the theoretical and are now being implemented. DeSci projects are exciting as they present new ways to encourage active participation while breaking up the highway robbery committed by scientific publishers. With a focus on openness, making new connections between people, and the sharing of scientific tools, we can see that this movement is not just for the purposes of investing, but also boosting scientific literacy throughout society.
Despite the positives, less evangelism and more clarity is needed. It is unclear what the ramifications of IP-NFTs are, and most projects are very rudimentary in their explanations of what happens beyond project funding stages. Also, for all the talk of problems with publishing, the majority of projects are more interested in tokenizing assets and raising money rather than building a sustainable blockchain-based publishing platform. Addressing the considerations listed in this article will help to create more trust and bring in a greater number of participants for the benefit of all.