How the Decentralized Science movement can revolutionize scientific research

Blockchain is already disrupting and transforming many industries, and science is no exception, directly benefiting from web3 decentralized models of organization and collaboration.

In the hypercompetitive field of science, only a few most renowned scientists have access to the constant stream of grants, and the fruits of their labor are often hidden behind the paywalls, unavailable to the general public. DeSci movement aims to change it, pioneering science funded by people and open to everyone.

With the help of web3 technologies, scientists hope to address academia’s shortcomings, such as systemic biases, lack of funding, and centralized control of research institutions. These issues hamper innovation and drive many talents out of the field but, luckily, aren’t completely unsolvable.

How exactly does DeSci use web3 tools?

In her article, Sarah Hamburg, a cognitive neuroscientist and a co-founder of the blockchain consultancy phas3, describes potential applications of DeSci – crowdfunding, efficient data storage, peer review, and narrow research disciplines. While still in its infancy, the DeSci movement has already given birth to numerous initiatives, including Hamburg’s other startup, LYNX, a blockchain-based solution for wearable biometric data.

Peer review powered by smart contracts

The academic publishing industry established itself as a middleman in the peer review process, reaping huge profits for something scientists perform for free. Smart contracts eliminate the third party by establishing a direct connection between authors and reviewers, rewarding the latter with tokens for their service.

A great example of such a solution is Ants Review, a protocol for incentivized open peer reviews on Ethereum. The protocol allows authors to issue a bounty for writing a review. And a gamified mechanism allows the whole community to evaluate reviews and vote for the best ones.

Incentivizing the scientific community with tokens

According to Hamburg, crypto and NFTs can be used to encourage scientific communities to share, review, and manage different resources, building a database of knowledge everyone can access. Such an approach would especially improve the quality and usability of preprints, scholarly papers that haven’t been yet reviewed and published in a journal.

Blockchain-based scientific crowdfunding

DAOs open the way for experimenting with alternative forms of funding scientific research. The blockchain-based funding models include Gitcoin’s quadratic funding, when donations from individuals are matched with corresponding amounts of financing for bigger donors, Optimism’s retroactive funding, NFT offerings to commercialize scientific findings, and others. Researchers can use all these forms to fund their projects, return value to investors, and create strong scientific communities.

Immutable storage against censorship

Citing the article about the episodes of scientific misconduct in the US when the Trump administration attempted to censor research on human-caused climate change, Hamburg emphasizes the need for immutable and accessible from every location data storage. The blockchain fits this role perfectly, providing a reliable shield against any kind of censorship.

Verifiable reputation

Similar to the idea of Vitalik Buterin, who proposed “soulbound” tokens that would constitute a user’s identity in web3, Hamburg proposes to reward scientists with NFTs for participating in the community initiatives, such as peer review, training and mentoring, and sharing data openly. A substantial collection of such NFTs would signal that we’re dealing with a person with a solid reputation in the field. And it’s applicable not only to individuals but to the scientific groups and labs sharing one wallet to showcase their achievements.

Ownership of scientific knowledge

Some researchers criticize the commercialization of academia as a slippery slope to the centralized platforms eventually owning science. In DeSci, different aspects of science are managed by the independent communities, effectively eliminating the risk of a single organization’s domination. Plus, NFTs and DAOs enable community members to be the shareholders of scientific knowledge, freely managing the value generated by their research.

Bottom line

Although the DeSci movement is still in its nascent stage, its numerous initiatives are already transforming academia. However, the development of DeSci also reveals a number of challenges, namely the underrepresentation of women in both crypto and science, the scientific quality of projects voted on by the non-scientists, and the low awareness of web3 technologies among scholars.

The movement would greatly benefit if more scientists from diverse disciplines were to join it, Hamburg believes. The flock of new members would spark more debate on the challenges DeSci faces and how to address them.