Political Science: Blockchain's Big Ideas
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Political science used to be a subject in High School. Today, it’s the reality that just keeps being unreal. Yesterday’s battle over teaching evolution has devolved into active climate change denial. The scientific truths on which human survival depend are being meticulously and ruthlessly excised from the national debate.
In theory, scientists should be able to search for the truth without being influenced by politics and money. However, scientists are usually under enormous pressure to bring in grant money from governments and businesses that often have something to gain from researchers reaching a particular conclusion. This is especially true in research universities where researchers and their staffs are basically forced to justify their own positions by bringing in grants, or running the risk of layoffs and reduced salary.[i] This too often means fudging the results by ignoring politically inconvenient variables.
When climate models can be made more accurate by improving the ability to account for natural processes like volcanic activity[ii], that’s when the hard questions should be asked. That means scientific research could benefit by divorcing itself from its dependence on government funding and becoming decentralized, in both fundraising and use of resources, by making use of the blockchain.
Can the Blockchain Support Decentralized Crowdfunding for Science?
It may sound unlikely that a muti-billion-dollar project like the Large Hadron Collider[iii] could be crowdfunded. Like most things in life, business, or science, getting a large project off the ground can sound prohibitively expensive for most people. However, crowdfunding works on the principle that many supporters can chip in a few dollars if they are convinced the project is worth the money.
There are not many blockchain platforms, crowdfunding or otherwise, specifically geared toward science. (Funny name, Starbase[iv].) The closest I’ve seen is actually a traditionally styled cryptocurrency called Orbitcoin.[v] There have been successful crowdfunding campaigns for investment, insurance, wealth management, and loyalty program startups[vi], so why shouldn’t there be crowdfunding campaigns for science? Why not an eventual crowdfunding program that is dedicated entirely to scientists who have a good idea, but who don’t want to (or acan’t afford to) take the chance of having their grant application rejected again?
The only real nitpick I might have for any such platform is that it should be entirely based on the blockchain and decentralized so that it can’t be censored. Case in point: some geneticists in Russia disguised a scientific project in which they bred domesticated foxes, and tried to disguise it as an attempt to breed foxes for a fur farm. Why? Because genetic research was illegal in the Soviet Union, and some of the “rejects” were actually sold to be turned into fur coats to help fund the project[vii]. (It’s more of an open secret now and the research team did get a published paper out of it in 2009[viii].)
Not only would these scientists have benefited from a government that was more tolerant of science, even if some of the basic concepts of genetics came from the Western world, but animal rights activists would likely also have been much happier about it if the scientists could have taken advantage of a decentralized and difficult-to-censor crowdfunding platform – instead of selling animals for fur to help fund their project.
Some researchers don’t even get off as easily as having to disguise their work as fur farming. Many academics have had to flee civil war or tyrannical governments out of fear for their lives. If they’re lucky, they might be able to smuggle out their research on a USB flash drive or deposit it to Dropbox before fleeing and finding a temporary position at a friendly university while they wait for their native country to stabilize.[ix] A decentralized crowdfunding and networking platform might help displaced scientists settle in and find temporary positions in research while they wait – or while they find a home where their intellects and ideas are valued.
The concept of getting rid of political science gimmicks may not be as hard as it looks, considering that cryptocurrency users tend to be fairly receptive to ideas that could literally send cryptocurrencies to the moon and beyond. (It is too bad that Jeff Garzik never got his idea of sending bitcoin nodes into orbit off the ground[x], but future projects might succeed where BitSats flopped.)
Think of this kind of crowdfunding platform as a free-market system for funding (non) political science, if you like.
Miners Can Lend Flops To Science
Gridcoin is the first cryptocurrency based on BOINC, a program that made it possible to decentralize data processing for science.[xi] The idea behind BOINC[xii] was that science-minded individuals could lend the unused processor power in their computers to science and reduce the need for research institutions to make an upfront investment in expensive processing power. BOINC has assisted in medical research, astronomical research, and cracked Enigma machine codes.
Gridcoin provides a way to compensate providers of processing power with cryptocurrency rewards, which helps offset electricity costs and can improve retention. SONM is a similar concept that isn’t built on BOINC, but uses smart contracts to enable users to lease out processor power or buy a set number of flops.[xiii] The developer team calls this a “fog supercomputer” that can be used by any organization that needs a lot of processor power but doesn’t want to invest in the hardware for a supercomputer, either because the organization can’t afford it, needs the processing power for a one-off project, or needs the extra flops during peak use periods that might overload existing network resources.
Just as it may be easier for IT administrators to justify renting gigabytes on a cloud storage service like Storj[xiv] when the bean counters don’t want to buy higher capacity hard drives, it may be easier for researchers to justify buying a set number of flops when university administrators don’t want to invest in higher capacity processors. So computer owners may be indirectly subsidizing scientific research by renting out their unused computing resources on a cryptocurrency or blockchain network.
Is today’s unnecessarily political science research infrastructure ready for decentralization? It might be, if enough researchers and the academic institutions that back them are fed up with current funding models that rely on politicians and government bureaucrats who might want to use their work to push an agenda.
And even when political science expediencies are actually avoided, don’t for a moment think that creates an autonomous and ideologue-free environment. Lest we forget, corporations might be funding a study in order to facilitate bringing a new product to market. Or to prevent a more efficacious cure from reaching the hands of disease victims, if there is a patent that protects their current profits.
Even without the politics, the corporations, the fuzzy logic, some academic institutions might not be as wealthy as the public believes and might have to prioritize the use of limited resources even if the administrators’ priorities might be less than ideal for researchers. This is where decentralized platforms can help by connecting individuals who might be willing to subsidize research projects – whether it be with extra cash, or computing power – with academic institutions and researchers that need funding.
Whatever the reason our political science games have arisen, the damage that muddle-headed authoritarian thinking products is clear to see. Or maybe not so clear to see – The White House has removed the EPA climate change page from its website.