By any technical standard, science is the foundational engine that moves humanity forward. Technology follows science in its application, and business follows technology in its commoditization.
It should come as a concern, then, to hear science is at risk of stagnation. Many of us are familiar with Moore’s Law. Specifically, it states that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles about every two years, but it’s practically used as an imprecise gauge for advancement in technology overall. Eroom’s law is our equivalent barometer in science, but carries a very different, unsustainable outlook: Since 1950, the cost of developing new drugs has doubled every nine years. In short, medical drug discovery is becoming slower and more expensive, even in the face of advancements in technology. To highlight this, the name given to this observation is just Moore's law spelled backwards. Broadly, Eroom’s law has been attributed to overregulation in pre-clinical trials, overbearing bureaucracy, a lack of interoperability between research projects and a tendency to throw money at the wrong problems.
A potential solution here lies in leveraging the novel coordination tools found in blockchains. Presumably, by using a decentralized organizational structure and an open source approach to data, scientists can better understand and more efficiently work to deepen collective knowledge and advance research in the process. To understand how this works, we need to dig a bit deeper.
Academic publishers are notoriously extractionary. By acting as intermediaries in the publishing process, they generate massive profits at the expense of open information. There’s been early promise seen in the mediation of authors and peer reviewers via smart contracts by projects like Ants Review, but the work being done is still very new. In practice, the culture of scientific publishing is rooted in established, rather than best practices.
The resultant output here is decentralized science, or DeSci for short. Much like blockchain is disrupting other industries by flipping models of centralized ownership for those of decentralized and collective ownership, scientific research is a non-obvious industry ripe for a shake-up. Today, DeSci’s nascent ecosystem is a mix of DAOs, focusing on everything from funding and accessing research, to subject-specific projects in longevity, psychedelics, and environmental science. Even some daring scientists have begun leveraging web3 tools to fund their own research.
To tie them all together, we find that decentralizing research has 3 main focuses:
1. Finding Funding
Researchers spend up to half of their careers writing funding requests and grant proposals, making it an especially acute pain point for people who’s time would otherwise be spent advancing science.
Like media, journals favor sensationalization. Attention-grabbing research is prioritized for selling subscriptions, and early stage exploratory or non-critical research becomes a burden to find funding for. This happens so regularly that research up until clinical trials has been coined the “Valley of Death” in academic circles. Submission to journals can take a year, and only the most dazzling studies are picked. Here, we find a classic case of misaligned incentives: researchers are driven to pursue what sells, not what is valuable.
As a result, the basis of science is eroded: no one can get funding to replicate the results of old studies, in a phenomenon fittingly dubbed the replication crisis. The vast majority of experiments that come back with negative results never even make it into a journal. Up to half of all clinical trials are never published at all. As a result, researchers can find themselves spending years exploring dead ends that others have confirmed as fruitless.
The mechanism by which DeSci might change this is by cutting out the middleman, connecting researchers directly with people and organizations who can fund and invest in their work. Projects like Molecule, a self-described “web3 marketplace for research-related IP” connects academics and biotech funding, while enabling the governance and ownership of research-related IP, bringing liquidity to a formerly illiquid asset.
2. Open Access to Data
Scientific knowledge in its pure form is a classic public good. Despite this, a huge amount of scientific knowledge is placed behind paywalls and siloed inside private databases, making the interoperability of research impossible. Here again, scientific progress is hindered. When researchers can’t share the results of their research, time, energy, and resources are wasted on questions that have already been answered.
Journals are main culprits here: 5 companies control more than half of academic publishing, pulling in $19B per year in a business model that’s as confusing as it is profitable: Government funds the research, pays the salary of those checking the quality of the research, and buys most of the published product themselves.
There has predictably been pushback on this: the Open Access movement has established a framework by which research can be distributed online for free. In response, though, a number of journals have changed their funding models by charging researchers to publish their work rather than charging viewers to read it. Nature, for example, charges researchers $11,250 to publish an Open Access article, placing the burden of cost back onto publicly funded scientists. Open Access isn’t free of it’s own drawbacks either: Shaun Khoo argues that “...whilst a shift to gold (pay to publish) open access would deliver wider access to research, the lack of price sensitivity amongst academics presents a risk that they will be locked into a new escalating pay to publish system that could potentially be more costly to researchers than the previous subscription model.”
DeSci again offers a solution, namely in the form of IP-NFTs: unique digital representations of research projects that are added to the blockchain as a non-fungible token. These allow researchers to share their data, their IP, their royalty rights and the ownership of these assets without compromising the question of their original contribution.
Not only do IP-NFTs serve as a great solutions for who-owns-what or who-discovered-what disputes; they also have significant implications on scientific censorship, of which claims have come into play in the political arena. The inherent immutability of blockchain technology helps put a stop to this.
3. Peer Review as a Public Good
Scientists perform peer review for free as journals make billions from their work. DeSci aims to solve this through the use of tokens to incentivize the sharing, review and curation of information.
“...Robust reputation and governance systems are therefore vital. For example, verified scientists could pre-screen grant applications for the wider community to vote on. Bridges between DeSci and traditional science could also help with quality assessment. For example, traditional funders, such as medical charities, could “bless” high-quality projects that they’re not able to support themselves.
DAOs would also benefit from designing such governance systems with edge cases in mind. For example, what if the community is infiltrated by a vast number of Flat Earthers, who work to divert treasury funds toward this research?”
An example of decentralized peer review in action can be found in Coinbase co-founder Brian Armstrong’s ResearchHub. The project has hired 60 editors with expertise in reviewing scientific papers across various fields, matching Hamburg’s suggestion of “robust reputation and governance systems” completely. Max Parasol continues, noting “ResearchHub isn’t trying to conduct research, but to create a platform for independent science. The editors are paid in ResearchCoin, which essentially equates to governance rights on the platform.”
With this framework in mind, we can imagine how this movement might play out. In a sense, it might be inevitable: all things considered, funding might be the biggest bottleneck, and therefore centralizing force, in science. Truly democratizing funding would therefore have huge implications.
The future might hold everything from wearable biometric devices to smart manuscripts and new retroactive funding models. As exciting as this is, it’s best not to get too far ahead of ourselves— at the end of the day, the space is nascent: blockchain-based science and research tooling initiatives date back to 2015, but the space as a whole didn’t find significant traction until late last year. DeSci Labs co-founder Professor Philipp Koellinger, gives his 2 cents:
“It’s too early for a tokenomics model of science. Most scientists are risk-averse and not familiar with Web3 yet. Tokenomic models for DeSci must be very well thought through and, ideally, developed together with and tested by the scientific community to gain widespread adoption and acceptance. It is glaringly obvious to most scientists that the current incentive system is misaligned with the purpose of science. The possibility for incentive design is one of the most powerful features of Web3 technologies. If done well, it could solve a lot of problems in science. Give it some time.”
Having come so far in such a short period of time, the next year or two will be a telling sign of how quickly web3 tools gain traction in academic circles, and more importantly, if they can at all. The scientific community exists in a simultaneously cutting edge and desperately antiquated state; just how entrenched it is has yet to be determined.
Thanks for reading,
A Guide to DeSci, the Latest Web3 Movement by Sarah Hamburg
DeSci, an opportunity to decentralize scientific research and publication by Enrique Dans
DeSci: Can crypto improve scientific research? by Max Parasol
Diagnosing the decline in pharmaceutical R&D efficiency by Jack W. Scannell, Alex Blanckley, Helen Boldon & Brian Warrington
How Do Decentralized Science (DeSci) Organizations Work? by Maria Isabella
How to Fight “Eroom’s Law” by Kaigham J. Gabriel
Into the valley of death: Research to innovation by J Hudson and H F Khazragui
Is paid peer review a good idea? by Sneha Kulkarni
Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science? by Stephen Buranyi
Open Access Comes to Selective Journal by Rick Seltzer
Science and Web3: Do non-fungible tokens (NFTs) provide a way to democratise and increase scientific funding? by Adrian Stencel
Scientific Knowledge as a Global Public Good: Contributions to Innovation and the Economy by Dana Dalrymple
Some science journals that claim to peer review papers do not do so from The Economist
The 7 biggest problems facing science, according to 270 scientists by Julia Belluz, Brad Plumer, and Brian Resnick
The Most Important Scarce Resource is Legitimacy by Vitalik Buterin
The gold rush: Why open access will boost publisher profits by Shaun Khoo
The money behind academic publishing by Martin Hagve
The paradox of sustainable innovation: the ‘Eroom’ effect by Jeremy Hall, Stelvia Matos, Stefan Gold, Liv S. Severino
The war to free science by Brian Resnick and Julia Belluz
What We Learned Doing Fast Grants by Patrick Collison, Tyler Cowen and Patrick Hsu
What You Know about Trump’s Assault on Science Was Just the Tip of the Iceberg by By Dana Gold and Lauren Kurtz
What's Decentralized Science? by CoinMarketCap