Over the past few months, we have been hearing more and more about the concept of ‘Decentralised Science’, or DeSci, for short. The term has appeared in several reports, articles and even client enquiries. Since this somewhat nebulous concept doesn’t have a single, widely understood definition, we thought that a blog highlighting its relevance for research stakeholders would be welcome!
In this post, we will provide insights and tips to help you navigate this evolving area, as well as highlighting why we should all care about what’s next for DeSci.
The DeSci movement as a response to the status quo in research
We will start by characterising DeSci as a movement. DeSci is not a piece of software, infrastructure or organisation, but a way in which some scientists are trying to revolutionise the world of science by leveraging emerging Web3 technologies as well as by pushing for culture change. In particular, DeSci lies at the intersection of two trends, which are closely related to open science:
- Efforts aiming to shift how research is funded and knowledge is shared
- Efforts to shift ownership and value away from industry intermediaries and towards creators
Figure 1 showcases DeSci efforts around most aspects of research, including funding, peer review, open access and open data, research incentives and more. Research funding is seen as a particularly challenging area, owing to the low success rates of grant applications, the metricisation of research and the limited availability of funding for small projects. Access to research outputs is also a major sticking point, alongside their ownership: DeSci proponents argue that research should be open to all and not owned by for-profit publishing houses.
There are also disciplinary and cultural aspects to consider when talking about DeSci: the biotech field is in the lead today, with progress being driven by a range of decentralised autonomous organisations (DAOs) that aim to operate in parallel to traditional research stakeholders such as universities, publishers and funders. Another imbalance arises from the fact that, today, organisations and individuals interested in DeSci are more likely to have an existing interest in crypto/Web 3 and science, which indicates that diversity in the movement is likely to be limited at this stage (e.g. due to gender imbalances in these fields).
Opportunities and challenges
The set of concepts broadly referred to as Web3 include decentralisation, blockchain technologies and token-based economics. Cryptocurrencies are probably the most widely known example of blockchain – but how can this technology, which we tend to associate with money, help in a research context? The answer, just like the DeSci movement, is multifaceted – DeSci can use blockchain tools in many ways, for example:
- To share information permanently and transparently, in a way that can help prevent censorship.
- To incentivise peer review via recognition systems (including payment) underpinned by smart contracts.
- To create innovative funding models (including for small projects), where research outputs. are minted as an NFT, which can then be sold in return for tradeable tokens (based on Decentralised Finance, or DeFi).
- To support the verification and reproducibility of published research.
- To shift ownership of research outputs from industry intermediaries to creators.
The breadth of opportunities enabled by Web3 technologies also highlights a key challenge. The very fact that, in principle, these technologies can enable so many different developments tells us that the DeSci movement is not united around a single, focused mission. As a result, excitement and confusion go hand-in-hand for non-specialists and external observers. In our view, the DeSci movement will need to make efforts to more clearly communicate how the areas, organisations, currencies and efforts in Figure 1 are interconnected and can work in a concerted way.
Overall, we do believe that DeSci is a phenomenon worth observing, but we are also somewhat puzzled by the lack of practical, accessible examples of implementation and take-up. In our experience, these are an essential component in the diffusion of innovations and are what might help transition the DeSci movement from a niche of innovators and early adopters into the mainstream.
What’s next for DeSci?
Today, DeSci is a fast-evolving movement that keeps branching out in new directions, with little coherence beyond a shared umbrella name. We do, however, expect that things will start to coalesce into a set of more concrete efforts in the coming years. For example, if we take a hype cycle interpretation (Figure 2), the DeSci movement is currently around the so-called peak of inflated expectations: a small number of highly dynamic organisations and individuals are experimenting with Web3 technologies to understand their potential. What comes next is a series of stages that will see the level of experimentation around DeSci slow down and then crystallise around a clearer set of behaviours, systems, infrastructures, organisations, financial mechanisms and more.
By considering the potential impacts of DeSci on your organisation, stakeholders and workflows today, you can get ahead and be prepared if the research landscape – or, more likely, portions of it – actually ends up shifting in the medium to long term. Would you like to chat more about this topic? Get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org, or meet us in London at the Decentralised Science Conference 2023!