🔮 Sunday commentary: Blockchain Use Cases for Science
Jocelynn Pearl on the potential of blockchain to improve science
Hi, Azeem here.
I’m away for a couple of weeks, so I asked EV member Jocelynn Pearl to step in and provide this week’s Sunday commentary.
This year has been a whirlwind for Web3, to say the least. Along with many of you, I’ve had to rethink my assumptions about what blockchain can do, and what real world problems it can reliably help us solve. To do this, I suggest we dive into a sphere that has problems that are easily attributed, at least in part, to centralisation and gate-keeping institutions and companies: science.
Jocelynn is a leading thinker and practitioner in this space, and believes that Web3 can help us address some of the most pressing issues in how science is conducted, and published. Share your questions and thoughts about DeSci in comments (paying members only 🔒), and share Jocelynn’s essay with your network (everyone!).
Hi, I’m Jocelynn Pearl, a biotech scientist, podcaster and company builder. I’ve been following the decentralized science or DeSci movement, working on NFTs for rare disease research, as well as an open marketplace for science. I’ve compiled many of the projects in this space into The DeSci Wiki, and our team at UltraRare has put together a map of the Decentralized Science Landscape (shown below). I’m particularly fascinated with how the theme of decentralization and new methods using blockchain technology can change the way science is done, including how science is published and how research is translated.
What is DeSci?
The concept of DeSci piggybacks off of a few pre-existing movements. The open science and open software movements were formative and continue to influence several of the key projects in the space. DeSci also involves the application of blockchain technology to scientific challenges. Blockchain first emerged as a changemaker for finance and asset management. The art world and digital communities saw the emergence of non-fungible tokens (NFTs). And decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) began changing how communities and work coalesced around particular projects in an ecosystem coined ‘Web3’.
Some of the key principles of DeSci include: i. scientific knowledge should be accessible to everyone, ii. Scientific work should be appropriately credited and incentivized, iii. Embrace collaboration and transparency (build in public), and iv. Patients and consumers should be able to own and control their medical data.
Use cases of blockchain for science
The internet has been enjoying debate over the use cases of Web3 (examples here and here). So what are the existing use cases of blockchain for science? Many ideas have been proposed, but let’s focus on two examples: improving peer review in scientific publishing, and expanding drug development.
The traditional scientific publishing industry is fraught with misaligned incentives that drive profits for companies like Elsevier. But what if there was a way to utilize tokenization to create a better system through which scientific research (or any research) is shared? (Example writing on this topic here). The current way that papers receive peer review is that a given journal requests other domain experts to review; these busy scientists are expected to spend hours reviewing the paper for free and submitting to the editor whether the work is fit to publish. Editors are now signaling that this approach is in trouble, with one editor stating that of 21 reviewers requested, 20 rejected the request. On top of that, the process, once underway, is highly inconsistent and often results in errors of judgment. A former editor of the Lancet joked that the journal "had a system of throwing a pile of papers down the stairs and publishing those that reached the bottom." But what if reviewers were paid for their time? Or if there was a better way of identifying the right experts? That is the motivation behind projects like Ants Review, which aims to incentivize the peer review process:
“We designed a privacy-oriented protocol of smart contracts called Ants-Review that allows authors to issue a bounty for open anonymous peer reviews on Ethereum. If requirements are met, peer reviews will be accepted and paid by the approver proportionally to their assessed quality. To promote ethical behaviour and inclusiveness the system implements a gamified mechanism that allows the whole community to evaluate the peer reviews and vote for the best ones.”
Drug development and the biotech industry have traditionally been highly centralized, similar to banking. Two major problems within the biotech industry are i. Clinical development timelines are lengthy and costly (what many deem the ‘Valley of Death’) and ii. There are many disease areas for which the profit margin or number of patients does not warrant a given biotech to focus on therapeutic development (i.e. rare diseases). But decentralized drug development could diversify the industry, reducing the cost and supporting therapeutic development for once-shunned diseases. Decentralized autonomous organizations are being spun up to focus on specific therapeutic areas, such as longevity or hair loss. These DAOs can raise capital (crypto) via a token launch, manage assets as a community, and govern decisions via token-based voting mechanisms. The hope is that they will actually be able to manage and finance drug development; time will tell if they will be able to deliver.
Off to the races
Towards the end of 2021, DeSci was really heating up, with a number of ideas and new DAOs aiming at improving things like the funding and publication of scientific research, biotechnology, and drug development. Conversations and engagement were high in various communities including a Blockchain for Science telegram group and VitaDAO, a longevity-focused funding community for science started by a company called Molecule. The question was, how much of this idea-soup could be built and how quickly? Where would capital be focused; would the ‘work force’ remain Web3 native in the sense that it was globalized, paid via crypto or tokens, and distributed?
Now heading into the fall of 2022, a few projects have raised traditional VC investment including Molecule and Vibe Bio, both with $12 million rounds. Several other projects have raised crypto. Generally speaking, it is still early days for many of the DeSci projects and many of these teams are actively raising or putting together roadmaps.
We’re also seeing a spillover of the theme of democratization and ‘building in public’ within the biotech space; more early stage VCs are sharing resources for founders; more information is accessible today about the once murky biotech sector. Drugs are being developed in new and different ways; especially in niche spaces like rare disease and phage therapy.
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What if Web3 ceased to exist?
“It doesn't actually matter if Web3 as we currently conceptualize it ceases to exist, because I think that the values of it are now out of Pandora's Box… Blockchains will not survive if they don't find real use cases. And I think we're trying to explore what some of those real, tangible, meaty use cases are, but I think a lot of corners of Web3 are still very speculative and very much not focused on building for real end users… We'll hit a trough of disillusionment around that. But I think what won't die is the underlying set of values and spirit that's starting to bring these communities together to accomplish big goals. And that I've said before, if web3 died tomorrow, I know that I would still be out here, building this future together that we're excited about.”
I think that’s a pretty great way of thinking about the current state of DeSci. I’m hopeful for the progress that these projects will make in the coming years; whether it be making improvements to the process of scientific publishing, developing new therapies for disease, or improving ownership and incentives across the scientific ecosystem.
One point I like to emphasize is that for decades, science has been happening predominantly in the university, institution-led system that is highly centralized and hierarchical, and puts out a particular type of research designed to fulfill the mold of a Nature/Science/Cell paper. DeSci holds a promise for alternative approaches to the scientific process. I argue that this increased diversity of approaches will have a net benefit on society and scientific progress as a whole.
Come for DeSci, stay for the exponential view on the changing world.
Quote used with permission from podcast producer Diana Chen