Encryption has occasionally been referred to as communication in the presence of an antagonist. In an environment defined by competition, it is a foreseeable conclusion that workers in the Information Economy may seek to guard their hard-earned secret to themselves. This closed system of knowledge confers a powerful advantage to “enlightened haves” compared to their “ignorant” competitors.
While this would make sense in a zero-sum game, this system also hampers as often as it protects. Science, which can be seen as one of the main pillars and motive forces towards a better future, is built on the knowledge of those who strived before us.
DeSci, open science and mercury poisoning
The two opposing forces of secrecy and education in closed science models have led to what the excellent thought leader and futurist David Orban referred to as “The Fatal Error of the Alchemists.”
Alchemists in the Middle Ages seeking the path to their Magnum Opus (the transformation of lead into gold) were habitual users of mercury. Believing it to be a vital component in the purification process and that it transcended both the solid and the liquid states, these alchemists often fell victim to the toxic effects of this metal. While an open system would have allowed other alchemists to constructively learn from the (often debilitating or even fatal) mistakes of their peers, the closed nature of these individuals or secret societies led to the mistake repeating itself more often than not.
This parable brings us to the importance of open science as an important engine of discovery. While today, we see the proliferation of knowledge at a scale never before seen, we also run new and novel risks. Open systems are still prone to scaling in a way that slowly and invisibly centralizes them. This could lead to a theoretical (but not impossible) future where “science” itself is owned by a consolidated hand of vested interests. We can already see the way science is disseminated suffering from gatekeeping due to financial interests rather than any concerns over quality. If centralization, intermediaries and vested interests are the gate holding us back from a more open and genuine approach towards science, then maybe the rise of DeSci offers the key we’ve been waiting for.
DeSci: Blockchain and Tomorrow’s research
DeSci, a portmanteau of Decentralized Science, describes the burgeoning field of scientific research and inquiry as enabled through DLT and Blockchain technology. While still nascent in many ways, this emerging phenomenon is quickly gaining influence and gravitas in the traditional scientific world. Many entities such as the De-Sci Foundation, De-Sci Labs and LabDAO amongst many many others are leading the charge on this brave new world of research and development. One of the main pioneers in this field, Dr. Sarah Hamburg, who has a Ph.D in Cognitive Neuroscience whilst also founding several Web3 initiatives, has done much in articulating the formation and evolution of this trend. According to Dr. Hamburg’s research, the main motive force behind this rising trend is coming from two different sources:
- The rising need for a complete reform in how the scientific community operates, mainly in terms of research, funding and the proliferation of knowledge.
- The Blockchain-based shift in shifting ownership towards communities rather than via centralized intermediaries.
Beyond just the contextual influences behind the growth of DeSci, the demographics of its pioneers and the nature of their work also has an extremely strong effect on the space. With research itself being difficult and labor-intensive with strict peer-reviewing, the commercialization of scientific inquiry and implementation is rarely profitable enough for boom and bust cycles, dissuading speculators who would try to game the system for money. At the risk of generalizing, the DeSci ecosystem is mainly made up of quite sober (but enthusiastic) doctoral staff.
Blockchain and the economics of research
With DeFi being first and foremost a financial revolution, it naturally stands to reason that the most apparent disruption in DeSci would be the way projects and teams are funded. Funding is the lifeblood of scientific projects even in the traditional space with most scientists spending on average half of their working time writing grant proposals with success in this regard being largely influenced by data metrics such as the h-index. This itself biases research incentives towards purely novel projects rather than critical but less marketable inquiries. To quote SCINET Co-Founder Kaitlin Cauchon;
How to get scientists on board the DeSci train? Democratize funding. Funding is the biggest centralization of science.
This economic constraint is not just limited to funding. Information access is a massive barrier when it comes to how genuinely public “public science” can be with large swaths of academic knowledge being locked behind journal paywalls or private databases. Even with the influence of the decade old Open Science Movement, a number of influential journals have simply moved towards a pay-to-publish model.
While scientifically oriented Blockchain initiatives date back to 2015, the Post-2021 Renaissance in DLT technology has led to a supercharging of the DeSci ecosystem. Today, projects such as Open Science NFTs, the rise of research groups raising funds via the auctioning of NFTs and the rapid proliferation of Scientific DAOs have overhauled the face of the landscape.
The main format DeSci initiatives seem to be taking in the modern day is that of the DAO with these Blockchain-based organizations tackling everything from funding to peer reviewing. This space is still in its nascent stages and tomorrow may bring more interesting evolutions with emerging scientists even experimenting with research tokens.
The DeSci Toolbox: Blockchain and Tomorrow’s science
Beyond just the financial means, DLT presents scientists and technologists with a novel suite of tools to allow them to engage in novel research in novel ways. From building genuine community-led projects to encouraging civilian science to contribute to research in meaningful ways, Blockchain may allow for a new generation of scientists to do what science does best, finding new and creative ways to tackle age old problems.
Smart contracts have the potential to incentivize a new form of peer reviewing. While scientists today conduct peer reviews for free, academic publishing houses act as intermediaries. This leads to both an inefficient process whilst also giving these houses the opportunity to extract large fees. Smart contracts are starting to be utilized to connect authors and peer reviewers directly with these reviewers being awarded tokens for their service.
The technology’s strong lean towards communities also makes it a powerful tool for community creation and coordination. The use of tokens or NFTs could be instrumental in forming scientifically-minded communities who could create and curate different and possibly even new types of information (such as smart manuscripts.)
Finally, the un-editable and permanent nature of Blockchain transactions makes these infrastructures excellent tools for the combat of both fraud and scientific censorship. In a more volatile political environment, this aspect may be very useful.
Blockchain today, brighter tomorrow
While the potential in this area is extraordinary, what is even more emboldening is both the enthusiasm and the sheer quality of the teams behind this rapid growth. With scientific visionaries working side-by-side with the best developers, there is a genuine possibility to see DeSci-empowered researchers leading the charge on bio-tech, genetic research, engineering, space and more. Decades into the future, we may be living healthier and longer lives in better and sustainable cities, doing things that may have been once thought impossible, all through the power of DeSci.
The work of Dr. Sarah Hamburg was pivotal in the culmination of this research article, both in terms of her own contributions as well as through her own articulation of the growth of DeSci. The Alchemist’s Error allegory, which served as the inspiration for the introduction, can be attributed to the pioneering work of David Orban. Throughout his career, Orban has been an extremely influential advocate for science and technology as a public good with his though leadership being vital in curating the philosophy of science. He has also been a close friend of the AIBC Summit, appearing several times at the summit to steer the conversation about science towards the best possible future.
AIBC Americas debuts in Toronto:
Following the massive success that was AIBC Asia, the Summit’s first ever physical debut in the Americas is set to take Toronto by storm this June. Uniting the best and brightest in the emerging tech world, AIBC Americas will feature leading policy makers, executives, technologists and visionaries in groundbreaking areas such as AI, Blockchain and Quantum Computing. The Summit will be composed of three days of thought-leading panels, inspiring keynotes and a massive amount of opportunities to network, leaving our delegates several steps closer to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Join us from the 6th till the 9th of June in Toronto!