The institution of scientific research is crying out for a structural change.
Scientists waste most of their time competing for increasingly limited funds, and a significant portion of grants go to already well-known scientists. The hypercompetitive nature and systemic biases of academia suck out individual creativity, driving many scientists out of the field. Its output, mainly publications or intellectual property, are often not even accessible to its primary funders, the taxpayers.
Decentralized science (DeSci) offers an alternative to how science is conducted now. The movement proposes to open science up by favoring decentralization over centralized control of research institutions and public funding bodies.
Instead of applying for grants from funding bodies, like the NIH, a decentralized community crowdsources the funds for research. It is also they who own any value produced, not research institutions or companies.
What are decentralized autonomous organizations?
Decentralized communities are buidlt on Web3, a permissionless and trustless iteration of the internet. This means that the users do not require any centralized authorization and all interactions are verifiable on the blockchain, thereby eliminating the need for trusting a third party with your data or transaction.
After taking on fintech and social media, these decentralized communities are now coming to disrupt science.
An alternative to conventional companies or research institutes, decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) are entities that connect like-minded individuals using smart contracts.
Decentralized communities are built on Web3, a permissionless and trustless iteration of the internet.
These contracts are code, describing the rules and how a DAO is governed. Moreover, unlike traditional organizations, their structure is flat and democratic. Everyone on a DAO can vote on any change in rules and decide where the funds are spent. They’re rewarded for their contributions with tokens (kind of like cryptocurrency for stock) that signify part ownership of the DAO.
Though some DAOs require potential members to prove their expertise, most are completely accessible for anyone to join and contribute to.
Scientific research, both in academia and elsewhere, is notorious for its gatekeeping and bureaucracy. Science DAOs, on the contrary, have a lower barrier to entry. They are designed to reward scientists for their contributions, not necessarily their reputation.
Also, as they are structured, DAOs incentivize collaboration and open sharing of data and thereby bring innovation out of the high walls of academia and industry.
How DAOs impact scientific research
Rare diseases such as alkaptonuria (a genetic disease) and schwannoma (a rare kind of nerve tumor) affect only a few hundreds or thousands of individuals in the U.S. The small potential market means that most pharma companies don’t have any incentive to develop therapeutics for these diseases.
Moreover, because pharma is also a major funder of basic disease research, there are large gaps in our understanding of rare diseases.
With DAOs, stakeholders such as rare disease researchers and affected patients can raise funds in a distributed manner. Not only does this allow rare disease patients to participate actively in drug development but, unlike a typical fundraising group, provides them a monetary stake in the outcome, as well.
Let’s say a DAO develops a drug candidate with real-world promise. Who owns it? Every member who owns the DAO’s tokens. Tokenization breaks down an asset into fractions that individuals can own. This allows retail investors (essentially, ordinary people) to purchase part of a piece of real estate or an expensive art piece, thereby making high-value investing accessible to more people.
DAOs can utilize this to split the ownership of their intellectual property into tokens that all stakeholders collectively own.
Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) have become increasingly popular over the last year, allowing artists to monetize their art. IP-NFTs provide the same benefit for researchers seeking decentralized funding to develop and commercialize their research.
Decentralization may remove redundancy from scientific research.
Another challenge for science is the lack of fairness and transparency in scientific publishing. Scientists are incentivized to publish only significantly novel results. Since negative results don’t see the light of the day, scientists often waste time and resources developing protocols that already didn’t work for other scientists.
By incentivizing transparent sharing of all data, decentralization may remove this redundancy. Further, unlike traditional journals that don’t pay peer reviewers, DeSci alternatives can award reviewers with tokens.
What Science DAOs Are Building
In January, longevity startup Altos Labs came out of stealth mode with Jeff Bezos and Yuri Milner, among others, investing $3 billion. However, longevity is too critical a field to be left only to billionaires.
VitaDAO is democratizing longevity research by adopting a community-driven funding model for early-stage research projects. For instance, it helped a group of Danish researchers raise funds to repurpose existing drugs as anti-aging drugs.
Another science DAO, Opscientia, is building a network of knowledge foundries. It brings together citizen science communities while providing a framework for incentivizing their contributions towards collaborative research.
Citizen science isn’t new and neither is crowdfunding for scientific initiatives: the novelty of Opscientia and other DAOs in the space lies in connecting the two with smart contracts, automatically rewarding citizen scientists for their work.
VitaDAO and Ospcientia provide just a glimpse into the fast-growing DAO-driven decentralized science landscape. Other science DAOs are funding research into psychedelics, making scientific publishing more transparent, and turning genomic data into NFTs.
Beyond distributed fundraising, collective ownership, and transparent peer review, decentralized science has other benefits as well. Since DAOs are theoretically owned by individuals distributed globally, they are more resistant to political interference. The science that matters to the community gets funded, not what the government wants to prioritize.
In this way, decentralized science provides a fresh opportunity to ask who should science serve. DAOs need to evaluate this question and work towards building and strengthening mechanisms that protect the interests of those people.
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