A growing number of scientists and entrepreneurs are leveraging blockchain tools, including smart contracts and tokens, in an attempt to improve modern science. Collectively, their work has become known as the decentralized science movement, or DeSci.
What is decentralized science (DeSci)?
Still in its infancy, decentralized science (DeSci) lies at the intersection of two broader trends: 1) efforts within the scientific community to change how research is funded and knowledge is shared, and 2) efforts within the crypto-focused movement to shift ownership and value away from industry intermediaries. But what exactly does DeSci entail?
I’m a neuroscientist and cofounder of a startup that uses the blockchain to provide users of wearables with full ownership and control over their biometric data (including brain data). I recently published a short letter in the journal Nature encouraging scientists across all disciplines to join DeSci. As the movement grows, so does the need for open public discussion. To that end, I’ve put together an introductory guide that covers how DeSci came to be, what its defining features are, what the major debates and open questions are within the movement, and where the greatest opportunities and challenges lie.
The DeSci movement aims to enhance scientific funding; unleash knowledge from silos; eliminate reliance on profit-hungry intermediaries such as publisher conglomerates; and increase collaboration across the field.
Funding is an especially acute pain point for scientists, who spend up to half their time writing grant proposals. Success in getting funding is heavily tied to metrics such as the h-index, which quantifies the impact of a scientist’s published work. The resulting pressure to “publish or perish” incentivizes the pursuit of novel research over work that’s critical but less likely to grab headlines. Ultimately, inadequate and unreliable funding not only reduces the amount of science being done, but also biases which projects scientists choose, contributing to issues such as the replication crisis.
Information access is another much-lamented problem. Despite the fact that science is the epitome of a global public good, a lot of scientific knowledge is trapped behind journal paywalls and inside private databases. Making all types of data more accessible is the main objective of the Open Science movement, which emerged over a decade ago.
Open Science initiatives have had far-reaching effects, including mandates by the National Institutes of Health and other funding sources to publish open-access findings. But the extent to which science has improved as a result is a matter of debate. For example, journals responded to these mandates with pay-to-publish business models. Now, instead of paying to read other people’s studies, publicly funded scientists pay to publish their own research. (Nature charges over $11,000 per paper.) Some academics have argued that open access mandates increasingly concentrate power in the hands of major publishers.
Where DeSci comes in
Though aligned with Open Science on the need to make science more accessible, DeSci isn’t Open Science 2.0. It’s a separate movement with varied and evolving goals. What primarily differentiates DeSci from other efforts to rethink our research system is its use of blockchain tools. This is similar to how blockchain is disrupting other industries, where web2 models of centralized ownership are being challenged by web3 models of decentralized, shared ownership.
Science-focused blockchain initiatives date back to 2015, but they didn’t coalesce into a larger movement until 2021, thanks to an explosion of new projects. This included the first Open Science NFT selling for 13 ETH; the subsequent rise of research groups auctioning NFTs; the growth of multiple science-focused decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs); and a DeSci panel discussion at last October’s community-led blockchain event, LisCon.
The resulting DeSci landscape is a mix of loosely connected DAOs. Some target specific aspects of scientific research, such as funding, peer review, access, incentives, and pace. Others focus on specific fields. Biotech is in the lead, with DAOs including Molecule, VitaDAO, PsyDAO, Phage Directory, LabDAO and SCINET. Environmental science DAOs are gaining steam too. Beyond DAOs, individual scientists are experimenting with blockchain by launching their own research tokens.
Across the board, DeSci efforts range from purely theoretical ideas and small-scale technological experiments to more established players funding university research and launching multiple DAOs of their own.
How DeSci actually uses blockchain tools
Smart contracts: While scientists perform peer review for free, the academic publishing industry extracts enormous profits from the process by acting as an intermediary. Ants Review has shown how smart contracts could instead mediate directly between authors and peer reviewers, who would be rewarded with tokens for their review.
Incentivized communities: Tokens/NFTs could be used to incentivize scientific communities to share, review, and curate different types of information into resources, such as “smart manuscripts” (which link open-source data and protocols) and article collections. This could enable new models of knowledge-sharing and rapid publishing and review, similar to a cultivated and managed version of #AcademicTwitter. Such communities could especially enhance the quality and usability of preprints (manuscripts published before peer review). Preprints are vital for rapid science, as shown by scientists’ reliance on them during the COVID pandemic.
Combat censorship: Claims of political interference in science have been made against multiple US administrations. The “permaweb” properties of blockchain — where users can store data and information forever, accessible from any location at any time — can be leveraged to guard against scientific censorship.
Blockchain-based funding models: As mentioned above, scientists and DAOs are currently experimenting with NFT and token launches to fund research. Future possibilities also include:
- Adapting blockchain-based public good funding models, such as Quadratic Funding and retroactive funding, by setting up platforms and protocols dedicated to science.
- Adapting emerging DeFi (decentralized finance) protocols to create sustainable long-term funding for scientists, which might resemble traditional tenure.
- Returning value from commercializable outputs (e.g., drug IP NFTs) to fund further research, enabling self-sustaining scientific communities.
Verifiable reputation: Currently, scientists’ reputations — and as a result their ability to secure funding — are tied to publishing metrics. With blockchain technology, scientists could earn NFTs for doing other activities that research communities deem valuable, such as peer review, training and mentoring, and sharing data openly. NFT collections could act as a verifiable digital reputation for contributions, further incentivizing such behaviors. Scientists and groups of individuals with a shared wallet, such as a decentralized lab, could build reputation this way.
As academic institutions increasingly shift their learning online, DeSci ecosystems may form an attractive alternative to traditional scientific education. Students will be able to simultaneously learn and build their digital reputations by taking part in community tasks, including those traditionally performed during a dissertation, like literature reviews, data cleaning, and analysis. This would allow people to be rewarded for contributing to science while they learn. The ability for anyone with an internet connection to contribute to the public good of science would help counteract the elitism that has historically plagued the field.
Ownership: Open Science has been criticized for the potential risk of sleepwalking toward one large commercial platform eventually owning science. In a DeSci ecosystem, different aspects of science, such as peer review and reputation systems, could be governed by separate, specialized communities. This would both mitigate against the risk of single platform domination and also help future-proof science against rapidly changing technologies and emerging threats.
DeSci additionally enables communities to be the new “shareholders” of scientific knowledge (e.g., through IP-NFTs that can be owned by DAOs). Value generated by such assets can then be used to fund the creation of new knowledge, in an attempt to build self-sustaining scientific ecosystems. Consider COVID vaccines, developed using technology that stands on the shoulders of decades of publicly funded research. The ability for vaccine prices to be set by communities that are open to all, and for profits to flow back into funding additional community-owned science, could significantly impact the health and prosperity of the world.
Debates and open questions
As the movement takes shape, so do a number of broad unknowns and debates.
Is “DeSci” the right name? While decentralization is an important feature of DeSci, not everyone feels it’s the defining feature. Some also take issue with “Sci” being in the name, claiming that it excludes other forms of scholarly pursuit, including arts, humanities, and indigenous systems of knowledge.
What is the movement united around? DeSci lacks a clear set of shared values. Currently, different segments are defined by the problems they’re attempting to solve. For a new culture within science to emerge, the movement would benefit from rallying behind common principles.
Whose interests will DeSci ultimately serve? Modern science serves a mix of industries, including academic publishing, higher education, and biopharma. Evaluation is needed to understand who and what the public good of science should ultimately serve, and how blockchain technologies could help achieve this.
How will DeSci protect science against biases arising from blockchain commercialization? DeSci communities may vote to fund commercializable research (e.g., projects that yield IP) over fundamental basic research (e.g., understanding the expression of a specific gene). To help mitigate against this bias, DAOs could use profits from commercial research to fund basic research. Also, scientists who focus on basic research could leverage blockchain technology to track subsequent use of any data generated, enabling them to receive royalties for producing the foundational work upon which downstream commercial research is built.
It remains to be seen how DAOs will collaborate to address these unknowns, and the obvious question emerges: How decentralized should the movement be? To what extent should DeSci projects tackle these questions as a unified movement or build independently?
Challenges to navigate
Scientific quality: Issues have been raised about whether non-scientists are capable of distinguishing high-quality projects from bad ones. 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?
Diverse participation: DeSci communities will be largely made up of people who are already involved in both crypto and science, two spaces where women are underrepresented. Gender imbalances (among other kinds) have real consequences — women’s health, for example, has been historically under-researched. It’s important for groups who make decisions about science to be representative of society.
Building DeSci protocols: Efforts to decentralize science have been around for years (most notably Blockchain for Science). New projects should work to understand the strengths and weaknesses of previous projects, and generally build with history in mind. The movement would also benefit from experimenting with different blockchain technologies, particularly those with low fees and minimal environmental impact.
Prioritizing end goals: Ultimately, DeSci is a movement that’s experimenting with a collection of new tools in an attempt to improve science. For DeSci to succeed, these tools should be unnoticeable and integrate seamlessly into the everyday work of scientists. DeSci should therefore focus on empowering scientists to do good science, and ensure through robust user research that the focus is on this and not on these new tools themselves.
How to get up to speed
Whether you want to keep up with major DeSci news or join a DAO, here’s a list of resources to help you get acquainted with the movement.
Twitter: The small but growing DeSci movement is vocal on Twitter, where community members make announcements about their projects and debate key topics. For starters, follow #DeSci and these key influencers:
- Bianca Trovò, founder of Ants Review
- Paul Kohlhaas, cofounder of Molecule
- Tyler Golato, cofounder of Molecule, core at VitaDAO and PsyDAO
- Jocelynn Pearl, host and producer of Lady Scientist Podcast, cofounder of LabDAO and launch team for OpenAccessDAO
- Nate Jacobs, a Science Fund Founder and flashpub.io founder/CEO
- Ariella Coler-Reilly, managing editor of VitaDAO
Beyond Twitter: Telegram and Discord are two other digital spaces where you can find DeSci conversations to take part in and active members of the movement to connect with.