An insider account of the DeSci origins story — a new movement of citizen scientists, open-access scientific research and crowd-sourced peer-review funded by crypto that’s gathering pace in 2022.
At ETHDenver in February, decentralized science became a thing. It was like the good old days of crypto: Like-minded spirits met and then crashed at each other’s rented places. Ideologies and open research were respectfully debated. DeSci panels were well attended with renewed energy for figuring out hard problems. Heated discussions were had. Many committed themselves to decentralized science, whatever that would mean. DeSci is, of course, very new and untested.
This could well be the first insider account of the DeSci origin story. Think Peter Parker citizen scientists funded by crypto.
Research is hard and problematically peer-reviewed. Commercializing science and tech is complex and often not profitable. Intellectual property protection is time-consuming. So, scientific research isn’t rife with speculators, rent-seekers and low-hanging fruit like other parts of Cryptoland.
The newly coined DeSci is about championing true decentralization, rejecting institutional influence (read big pharma, and the peer review system) and encouraging citizen science in pursuit of truth.
COVID-19 has spurred its development. The speed at which multiple COVID-19 vaccines and endless studies were delivered was a pivotal moment. If COVID-19 research could be produced that quickly, why couldn’t decentralized movements do it too?
Could crypto, tokenomics and decentralized autonomous organizations play a role in new models of research and commercialization?
This is a story of a band of committed activists who want to make that happen, one of whom is Erik Van Winkle who grew up wanting to be a scientist, had a core role at ConstitutionDAO, and has now found his sweet spot as a community organizer for DeSci Labs — a project working on new technologies to improve the accessibility, reliability, transparency, and value sharing of scientific publications, as well as the DeSci Foundation.
He says the mission is broadly Can we make science more efficient? and while it won’t happen overnight, it will happen:
“DeSci is possible — it just has a long road ahead of it. Blockchain took time; DeFi took time. DeSci will get there.”
He adds it’s already attracting some of the best minds.
“People are excited to be there; they are excited by the mission. Attracting developers is very hard. This is an area that has a good story behind it.”
Building upon existing science
According to a recent article by Sarah Hamburg, co-founder of Web3 advisory Phas3 and blockchain-based biometric data company Lynx, DeSci lies at the intersection of two broader trends. “1) Efforts within the scientific community to change how research is funded and knowledge is shared, and 2) efforts within the crypto-focused movement to shift ownership and value away from industry intermediaries.”
DeSci communities are expected to be largely made up of those already involved in both crypto and science. How they interact with the wider scientific community is key.
Most DeSci advocates are keen to respect existing research communities while harmoniously building new ones. This reflects an important slogan for the DeSci movement, best summed up by Hamburg in a letter to Nature encouraging scientists across all disciplines to join DeSci. Don’t work against us — join us.
Hippocratic Oath for DeSci?
Josh Bate has become a high-profile figure in the burgeoning DeSci space. A community organizer with high visibility, he agrees ETHDenver was a catalyst for DeSci.
Bate, “a DeFi guy” who was once the head of community for the Free Julian Assange campaign and began in crypto “by using Bitcoin just for buying things on the dark web.” He’s pretty forthright when he talks. How did he earn his position of visibility in the community? Just “put myself about,” he says.
Bate founded and funds DeSci World, a “peer-to-peer research platform, and a DeSci aggregator of info.” It aims to create a dashboard akin to DeFi Pulse for DeSci.
He also believes DeFi practices are crucial to DeSci business models, but DeSci needs more than “Web3 tooling to improve on the current state of affairs.”
He tells Magazine that he fears a “dark DeSci and a regular DeSci,” so he’s been campaigning for a Hippocratic Oath for DeSci. He made the case at a talk at ETHDenver:
“It’s so early, but we can choose a Hippocratic Oath for DeSci now — no institutional finance, just pure science.” He asked the crowd for a show of hands on whether “DeSci should have an explicitly stated ideology” and estimates that maybe 5% voted “no,” 20% “yes,” and the rest were too confused by the many variables and held out to see the outcome.
How to peer review as a decentralized public good
Let’s jump back a step to consider the complex problems with existing research models.
There’s a need to improve:
Research funding Open access to research Overhaul the academic peer-review process.
Of course, there’s no proof that grafting crypto onto this process is the best way to improve it. Is creating a coin around a research project a good way to fund it? What do holders of that token get out of it? Is it more out of altruism than a financial return?
LabDAO is an open community of wet and dry labs for citizen science. Founder Niklas Rindtorff tells Magazine that “tokenomics can’t directly change research.”
“But tokenomics can generate new mechanism design and incentives. In a time where most academic research is following the same set of incentives, I am hopeful new funding agencies and tokenomics models can help diversify the ways research is being done.”
1. Crowdsourcing research funding
Funding is the bane of scientists’ existence, and the process does not always reward merit. Scientists waste a lot of time writing grants applications. Hamburg wrote:
“Funding is an especially acute pain point for scientists, who spend up to half their time writing grant proposals. Success in getting funding is heavily tied to metrics such as the h-index, which quantifies the impact of a scientist’s published work. The resulting pressure to ‘publish or perish’ incentivizes the pursuit of novel research over work that’s critical but less likely to grab headlines. Ultimately, inadequate and unreliable funding not only reduces the amount of science being done, but also biases which projects scientists choose, contributing to issues such as the replication crisis.”
The replication crisis means that the results of perhaps more than 50% of published studies cannot be replicated by other scientists carrying out the same experiments or research.
DeSci proponents argue that funding gatekeepers hinder scientific progress. Hamburg, a neuroscientist who has researched innovative ways of treating Alzheimer’s by using light known as entrainment, explains to Magazine that “funding bodies are too slow for innovative therapeutics.” She was building a phone app for entrainment treatments but ran out of funding. She still believes the trial would have proved fruitful for treating Alzheimer’s.
In addition, traditional funding mechanisms aren’t great for new and different research approaches. “For example, DeSci will unleash the growth of digital therapeutics [wearable biometric devices], which will enable large numbers of people across many different locations to participate in digital-based studies and pool their data,” she argues. DeSci trials could be done with fewer biases and better-pooled data on a blockchain.
Like the open-source nature of AI research, Hamburg suggests that “medicine of the future will be algorithms in one way or another. Pooled data will be very important for generating new insights.”
That’s the vision. The question is whether the decentralized science movement has the capabilities to better decide what should or shouldn’t be funded.
How do you conduct peer-reviewed research and collaborate with the harmoniously scientific community? Will DeSci crowdsource both the funding and the peer review, or does it just fund the research and get out of the way? For now, experimentation may be the only option.
SCINET co-founder Kaitlin Cauchon believes DeSci’s success is inevitable because the current academic funding model is broken.
“How to get scientists on board the DeSci train? Democratize funding. Funding is the biggest centralization of science.”
SCINET is an early-stage project that is currently focused on building a decentralized crowdfunding platform for life sciences research. Once done, they will turn their attention to an “electronic lab notebook built on on-chain”, according to Cauchon. Open access and replicability are the problems they seek to solve
2. Open access for citizen science
Information access is another big problem for science today, Hamburg noted in her article. “Despite the fact that science is the epitome of a global public good, a lot of scientific knowledge is trapped behind journal paywalls and inside private databases. Making all types of data more accessible is the main objective of the Open Science movement, which emerged over a decade ago.”
Peer review is slow and anonymous, and this can lead to “turf wars” as journals are gatekeepers of knowledge. (FYI, see this 2018 review of the peer review system.) Two major players are Clarivate and Elsevier, who are the Web2 equivalents of academic research. Scientific journals are an oligopoly of for-profit companies. Articles are protected by copyright.
The two leading business models of journal publication companies are “pay-for-access” and “pay-for-publication.” Even for independent observers, this does seem like a perversion of incentives.
In recent years, preprint platforms Arxiv, bioRxiv, medRxiv and SSRN have allowed academics to post early versions of their manuscripts online and have emerged and found favor. However, this is prior to the peer review process, and academics may not divulge key findings at this stage
The problem is clear: paywalled science. And the benefits of fixing the problem are even starker.
Hamburg, who has had a chronic pain condition called fibromyalgia since she was 19 and long COVID over the past two years, believes that by making research more available, DeSci can crowdsource ordinary people working together to help solve problems, especially those affected by an illness who are the most motivated.
“With many chronic conditions, there’s a strong ‘biohacker’ mentality that emerges, as people are left to track flare-ups and the impact of interventions themselves, with inadequate know-how and tools to do so. There is very little crossover (if any) between these ‘citizen science’ experiments and traditional science and medicine, so insights are missed, and many illnesses remain under-researched despite the millions they impact worldwide.”
DeSci Labs is working to create a ledger of scientific records that stores and validates manuscripts, data and code in a transparent way that is accessible to everyone. “Making science truly open involves transforming science from solitary PDFs into dynamic research objects. We plan to showcase our first product, DeSci Nodes, at the DeSci Day on April 20 in Amsterdam to demonstrate how a pre-print can be turned into a reproducible research object stored on IPFS containing data, code and video to evidence work and chip away at the reproducibility crisis,” Van Winkle tells Magazine.
One innovative approach that might improve open access is being taken by the Smart Contract Research Forum. It’s a community for industry and researchers to share research and peer reviews that is “decoupling review from publication.”
Operations leader Eugene Leventhal tells Magazine, “Today, peer review is only available for those vying for those coveted journals and conferences. The majority of the Web3 space, with the exception of the underlying cryptographic primitives, has mostly been built outside of academia, and most researchers publish more on their blogs and Twitter than in traditional venues.”
“That’s why we think it’s important to start a series of open peer review experiments supporting independent researchers in the space, and we’re starting to coordinate with meta-science researchers to ensure that we’re not re-inventing the wheel with our experimentation.”
They will announce their plans for 2022 at ETHAmsterdam on April 20.
So, more open and pooled data is one key to more research from concerned citizens. But should tokenomics mean that reproduction of data sets along with all research data is incentivized?
3. Overhaul the academic peer review process
Patrick Joyce worked at a tumor biology lab at the famed Johns Hopkins University. He also dropped out of med school and a Ph.D. program working on molecular biology.
He’s far from the only person who tells me that “good science isn’t always super citable. This creates weird perverse incentives driven by money flowing from citations.”He adds, “Higher prestige journals lead to better citations. But paywalls mean the world can’t benefit in real-time.”
In 2016, before Joyce discovered crypto, he decided to build a Reddit-like platform for science called Knowledgr. Coinbase founder Brian Armstrong invested in his company, but the project soon sputtered out. Joyce then joined Armstrong’s ResearchHub — a sort-of GitHub for science, with utility behind the paper — in 2020 as chief science officer.
ResearchHub is a good example of where DeSci may be heading. ResearchHub has hired 60 editors, he says, people who “are qualified to review scientific papers.” It’s really an economies-of-scale issue, enough editors and support, and the reviews will be almost universally respected. It’s currently on the hunt for preprints or draft research manuscripts to receive peer reviews.
ResearchHub isn’t trying to conduct research, but to create a platform for independent science. The editors are paid in ResearchCoin, which “essentially equates to governance rights on the platform.”
“Like open source, we hope to tear down the Ivory tower so a barefoot biochemist in Uzbekistan can unlock clever science.”
They recently added digital object identifier (DOI) citations to papers to help integrate ResearchHub with existing research models. DOIs aid researchers to find original references.
Joyce says the project started as a pure DAO, but that didn’t work out. It “is still kind of a DAO but more CEO-run. It’s hard to organize people. We had to carefully delineate what the DAOs should decide. For example, ‘should we ban a eugenics hub?’ that question goes to the DAO.”
But he adds in DeSci, “Now there’s an expectation that you’re a DAO.”
Do you see opportunities to improve #PeerReview?
SCRF will host an Open Peer Review discussion with Prof. Nihar Shah @mldcmu, @joshuaztan from @metagov_project, and @bbeats1. Join us April 5th at Carnegie Mellon University. pic.twitter.com/MdjjoFCCCm
— SCRF (@SCRForum) April 4, 2022
DAOs are crucial to DeSci’s moment
In the wake of ETHDenver, new DeSci DAOs have been emerging almost weekly.
The fledgling stdDAO’s mission is to fund sexually transmitted disease research in the hopes of finding cures. The founders are crypto people “remaining anonymous, as everyone in the DAO has personally contracted an STD — all of them know someone who has a more serious STD.” Founder CarmenCrypto says they seek to get access to the industry outside of big pharma. They are looking for “cures, and not just another side effect treatment, which are what is only available on the market today.” They plan to first focus on STDs, such as “herpes simplex types 1 (cold sores) and 2 (genital) and to further gene editing and stem cell research.”
“We run the business, the DAO; outside specialists will help us with the research. The DAO can be cross-border, can move funds, can cut across projects.”
They have in-kind goodwill from lawyers, finance pros and charities all willing to help (and everyone “has crypto skills”).
Side-stepping United States clinical trial regulations, they want to fund research “wherever scientists and researchers may be.”
They are also looking to capitalize on existing open research. CarmenCrypto says the DAO is “looking for highly knowledgeable professionals, such as doctors, scientists, researchers, philanthropists and entrepreneurs, to help provide insight to our community on innovative medical techniques with a high potential to cure STDs that stdDAO should fund.”
It’s very new, and very experimental. Are decentralized clinical trials even possible, or ethical? It’s so early that tokenomics design is still a vague high-level discussion.
Ok how about: It’s a DAO. The scientists do science. The DAO owns all the data, algos & IP generated – all tokenised (@oceanprotocol) & tied to a DAO token. Giving the tokens value. Scientists are paid in these tokens. Token value is inherently ⬆️ by teaching & collab. Thoughts? https://t.co/Od21X1f2tf
— Sarah Hamburg PhD (@Shamburgularara) April 3, 2022
Tokenized science is still evolving
Despite the enthusiasm, the path to tokenizing science may be slow, says DeSci Labs co-founder Professor Philipp Koellinger, adding:
“It’s too early for a tokenomics model of science. Most scientists are risk-averse and not familiar with Web3 yet. Tokenomic models for DeSci must be very well thought through and, ideally, developed together with and tested by the scientific community to gain widespread adoption and acceptance. It is glaringly obvious to most scientists that the current incentive system is misaligned with the purpose of science. The possibility for incentive design is one of the most powerful features of Web3 technologies. If done well, it could solve a lot of problems in science. Give it some time.”
DeSci Labs believes that a decentralized peer review system can be achieved by “autonomous research communities of the best researchers in every field, who are incentivized and rewarded for providing open, timely, and high-quality peer review and who select the most important contributions to be highlighted in a transparent way.”
This would be a dramatic improvement on the current practice of closed-door peer reviews of journals that rely on unpaid time of scientists, which is haunted by collusion, gate-keeping and bias.
DeSci’s breakout moment in Amsterdam?
Renee Davis is another who was inspired by ETHDenver. She asked Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin at the event what the top five research problems were facing DeSci. “Of the five Buterin stated, four of them are already being worked on by the community,” she says, listing onboarding, governance protocols, token distribution and decentralized identity systems.
“I’m so glad I went to ETHDenver,” she says, adding, “My ROI was massive from bonding with the DeSci community.”
She quit Deloitte consulting to join BanklessDAO and then founded the Journal of Decentralized Work, an open-source journal for the study of DAOs and delegated tokenomic research and TalentDAO.“TalentDAO is trying to create a new science of DAOs, helping to make sure DAOs don’t fail.” It has partnered with Arweave and Ocean Protocol.
At ETHAmsterdam, part of Devconnect Amsterdam, DeSci Day will take place on April 20. It’ll give the community a chance to see how far DeSci has progressed since ETHDenver in February. Davis, for one, thinks it’s progressing in leaps and bounds, and the sky is the limit.
“Crypto disrupted finance; NFTs disrupted culture; and DeSCi will disrupt knowledge in the next 12–24 months.”