What is decentralized science?

Blockchain technologies could enhance funding and collaboration in science, leading to a more open and equitable space for researchers.

What is decentralized science?

Key Takeaways

  • DeSci leverages blockchain for democratized funding and open access publishing.
  • Challenges for DeSci include regulatory issues and institutional resistance.

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Decentralized science (DeSci) is an emerging movement that aims to revolutionize scientific research by leveraging blockchain technology and Web3 principles. At its core, DeSci seeks to address longstanding issues in traditional scientific practices around funding, publishing, and collaboration.

The traditional scientific ecosystem faces several key challenges. Limited access to research funding, coupled with lengthy grant application processes favoring established researchers, has discouraged scientists.

Peter Higgs, the British physicist who proposed the Higgs boson (sometimes also called the Higgs particle), said in 2013 that he believed no university would employ him today, given the current milieu around academic systems, simply because he would not be considered “productive” enough. Higgs died earlier in April this year, leaving behind a legacy for particle physics.

It is this same drive for productivity in the academe that precedes another problem with scientific publications: expensive paywalls. Access to scientific journals is heavily paywalled, relegating research to a closed circuit of privatized knowledge. Although there are projects such as Sci-Hub that support open access rights to information, most major platforms for scientific research are either paywalled or accessible only to those with institutional affiliations.

The “publish or perish” adage applies as well to another issue with scientific publication: there is a lack of incentives for researchers to openly share data or reproduce work from other scientists, simply because such work is not rewarded by the current system.

Intellectual property disputes among researchers and universities backing their work also hinder innovation. Instead of spending more time actually doing their work, scientific researchers have had to tackle these disputes as well.

With the application of blockchain technologies, these conflicts could be resolved and the thrust for productivity among academic institutions, while largely profit-driven, could be satiated with more efficiency gains to boot.

DeSci proposes solutions to these issues through decentralized technologies:

Democratized funding: Blockchain-based crowdfunding and tokenization of research projects could provide more diverse funding sources. Platforms like VitaDAO allow anyone, not just major institutions, to back early-stage longevity research.

Open access publishing: Decentralized platforms aim to make research freely accessible while still incentivizing peer review. ResearchHub, backed by Coinbase’s founder, rewards scientific contributors with cryptocurrency tokens.

Improved collaboration: DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations) enable global teams to coordinate research efforts. AthenaDAO focuses on historically underfunded women’s health research.

IP management: Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) representing research IP could give scientists more control over their work’s commercialization. Molecule Protocol facilitates IP-NFT frameworks for biotech projects.

Data sharing: Decentralized storage solutions allow for secure, transparent sharing of research data. GenomesDAO aims to create a user-owned genomics database for advancing medical research.

While promising, DeSci faces hurdles to widespread adoption. Traditional academic institutions and publishers may resist changes to established systems, and regulatory challenges around the tokenization of scientific assets also need to be addressed.

However, proponents argue that DeSci could lead to more equitable, efficient, and innovative scientific progress. By realigning incentives and lowering barriers to participation, it may accelerate breakthroughs in critical fields like longevity research and climate change solutions.

Key Projects driving the DeSci movement

Several pioneering projects are at the forefront of the DeSci movement, each addressing specific challenges in the scientific ecosystem:

VitaDAO: Focused on longevity research, VitaDAO has raised over $4 million to fund early-stage projects aimed at extending healthy human lifespans. Backed by Pfizer and former Coinbase CTO Balaji Srinivasan, it exemplifies how DAOs can democratize access to emerging therapeutics, challenging the monopoly of traditional biopharma companies.

ResearchHub: Founded by Coinbase’s Brian Armstrong, ResearchHub aims to become the go-to platform for scientific discussions. It uses a native token, ResearchCoin (RSC), to incentivize contributions like uploading papers, commenting, and peer review. This model seeks to accelerate scientific breakthroughs by rewarding active participation in the research community.

Molecule Protocol: This platform bridges biomedical research projects with potential funders using blockchain technology. Molecule introduces the concept of IP-NFTs (Intellectual Property Non-Fungible Tokens), which represent ownership of research intellectual property. This innovation allows for more fluid trading of IP rights and could help projects overcome the “valley of death” in early-stage funding.

AthenaDAO: Addressing the critical underfunding of women’s health research, AthenaDAO focuses on conditions like ovarian aging, menopause, and endometriosis. By leveraging a decentralized community, it aims to shift the landscape of women’s health research and improve understanding of female-specific health issues.

GenomesDAO: This project is building a user-owned genomics database, allowing individuals to securely store their DNA data and optionally share it with researchers. By giving users control over their genetic information, GenomesDAO aims to accelerate genomic research while maintaining individual privacy and data ownership rights.

Bio.xyz: Acting as an accelerator for DeSci projects, Bio.xyz helps launch and fund various biotech-focused DAOs. It provides a launchpad for token auctions, enabling both DAO participants and external investors to support innovative scientific initiatives.

These projects demonstrate the diverse applications of blockchain technology in scientific research, from funding mechanisms to data management and collaboration tools. As they continue to gain traction, they could significantly reshape how scientific research is conducted and funded on a global scale.

Challenges and future outlook for DeSci

While DeSci presents exciting possibilities, it also faces significant challenges that will shape its future development:

Regulatory Hurdles: The tokenization of scientific assets and the use of crypto for funding raise complex regulatory questions. Authorities may scrutinize DeSci projects to ensure compliance with securities laws, potentially slowing adoption. Clear regulatory frameworks specifically addressing DeSci will be crucial for its growth.

Resistance from Established Institutions: Traditional academic and publishing institutions may resist the disruption DeSci represents. Entrenched systems of peer review, tenure, and impact factors are deeply ingrained in scientific culture. Overcoming this inertia will require demonstrating clear benefits and gradually shifting academic incentives.

Technical Barriers: Many scientists may lack familiarity with blockchain technology and decentralized systems. User-friendly interfaces and educational initiatives will be necessary to lower the barrier to entry for researchers interested in DeSci platforms.

Data Privacy and Security: While blockchain can enhance data security, managing sensitive scientific data on decentralized networks poses challenges. Ensuring compliance with data protection regulations like GDPR while maintaining the benefits of open science will be a delicate balance.

Quality Control: As DeSci lowers barriers to publication, maintaining rigorous standards for scientific quality becomes crucial. New mechanisms for peer review and reputation management in decentralized systems will need to adapt and transform but also learn from the tradition.

Despite these challenges, the future outlook for DeSci remains promising. As the movement matures, we may see increased collaboration between traditional institutions and DeSci projects, leading to hybrid models that combine the best of both worlds.

There could also be some growth in the acceptance of alternative metrics for scientific impact, potentially based on blockchain-verified contributions and real-world applications of research.

New scientific fields could also emerge faster, driven by the unique capabilities of decentralized systems, such as large-scale citizen science projects or AI-assisted research coordination.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, decentralized science, if applied at scale, would likely result in a more equitable sphere of participation in scientific research, given how the tools could enable researchers from underrepresented regions to access funding and collaborate globally.

The success of DeSci will ultimately depend on its ability to deliver tangible benefits to the scientific community and society at large. If it can demonstrate improved efficiency, fairness, and innovation in research, DeSci could become a transformative force in the scientific landscape, ushering in a new era of open, collaborative, and decentralized scientific discovery.

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