Science is crucial for progress of the humanity, and yet the scientific research process has several inefficiencies. While science has advanced a lot over the past few decades, the process and structure have not changed a bit. Centralised decision-making, lack of funding, flawed peer-review process, publisher conglomerates, and lack of incentives for collaboration are some of the problems faced by scientists and researchers. There was definitely a need for change, and blockchain could play a fundamental role in bringing the change.
Funding – Scientists have to spend a significant amount of their time writing grant applications rather than conducting actual research. They have to compete for limited funds. The systemic biases and metrics that decide which scientists receive funding hamper innovation and critical research. The pressure to “publish or perish” impacts the projects scientists are forced to choose and end up compromising on their original research idea. On the other hand, the original funders, i.e., the taxpayers do not even have access to IP or publications resulting from the research.
Access – While the Open Science initiative has been making positive changes, science is not close to anywhere being open. Vital scientific knowledge is trapped behind paywalls and in private databases. If there are no paywalls, then researchers have to pay a significant amount to get published. For developing countries like India, the amount required to get published could be more than the annual income of the majority of the population.
A negative hypothesis can be a crucial set of information for other researchers who could learn from it and avoid making the same mistakes. Yet, sharing of negative hypotheses is not promoted by the existing scientific research infrastructure. Imagine the pace at which science could advance if there was knowledge sharing which benefitted the advancement of science and the researcher too.
What is Decentralised Science (DeSci)?
Decentralised science or DeSci is an intersection of science and blockchain. The broader scientific community is working towards changing how research funding is done and knowledge shared. On the other hand, the web3 community wants to bring the power back to the people and away from intermediaries. DeSci does not require any centralised authorisations, there are no decisions taken behind closed doors, and no need for trusting any third party. Everything is open and verifiable on the blockchain.
Let us look at some major tools used in DeSci –
Smart Contracts – IBM defines smart contracts as “Smart contracts are programs stored on a blockchain that run when predetermined conditions are met. They typically are used to automate the execution of an agreement so that all participants can be immediately certain of the outcome, without any intermediary’s involvement or time loss.” So, with smart contracts, no outside interference is possible. The smart contract is out in the open for experts to verify, and once certain conditions are met, the smart contract is executed. So, for e.g.: If a smart contract is written that has conditions that once a researcher completes a phase of research and uploads data in the system, funds for the next phase of research will be released, these actions will be completed as soon as the conditions are met. No need to get approval, check with the admin staff, or write reminder emails, nothing, funds will be released immediately.
DAO – DAO or decentralised autonomous organisations are formed by coming together of a group of people who wish to achieve a common goal. The members of these DAO then fund the DAO to help solve a problem by supporting the people best suited to do so. Each member of these DAO has voting power and can vote on how the DAO would operate. So, collectively the DAO members can decide which research projects should be funded, if any potential partnership should be considered, and participate in all other vital decisions. All of these happens on the blockchain, so everything is transparent and there are no behind-the-doors centralised decisions.
NFTs – NFTs have been around in the web3 space for a few years, and not many NFT projects have had any real utility. The idea of NFT or Non-fungible tokens was to tokenise real-world assets, but it become synonymous with monkey pictures being sold for millions. However, the technology behind NFT has the potential to revolutionize several industries. With NFTs, patents can now be turned into liquid assets which can be traded or used to raise funds.
Decentralised Science is rapidly emerging as a promising and sustainable alternative structure to traditional institutions. Even in geographies such as India where government does not hold a very favourable view of cryptocurrencies, blockchain is considered vital for technological advancement and solving critical problems. Recently, the present Union Minister of Finance Nirmala Sitharaman said, “India is not against Blockchain technology, but wants it to contribute to fintech and other sectors.” She further added, “Blockchain gives us so many options. It can be used in so many different ways. So, we are not against the technology.” ‘
Given all these benefits of DeSci, the stance of the Government on blockchain technology, and the opportunities it presents in revolutionizing science, it would be interesting to see the progress of decentralised science over next few years.