Is DeSci the Answer to Science's Problem? Part 2 - Research and Funding
Science is enabled through the allocation of funding to scientists who propose specific research projects. The current scientific landscape is described by the DeSci movement as having ‘centralized control,’ - that is they believe that a small number of power players have substantial influence over the scientific landscape, creating an imbalanced academic industry of knowledge - which should be a public good. They criticize the current academic system as having an imbalanced distribution of resources and a hyper-competitive funding environment. The resulting pressure to “publish or perish” incentivizes the pursuit of novel research over work that’s critical but less likely to grab headlines (Hamburg, 2022). However this is not always the case - competition surrounding funding and resources can vary hugely across industries, countries, and regions, as well as based on individual contracts.
The DeSci movement has articulated their argument that science is centrally controlled and that this is detrimental, however, we should question what this specifically means. It is worth noting that “centralized authorities” are many, making it in effect a decentralized way to fund scientific projects. Thus, a researcher can seek a grant from an institution, a foundation, a university, a region, a country, or even an Economic Zone (like the European Union). In the context of research funding, the DeSci movement may gain credibility in better defining what it considers to be centralized.
It is also a widely-held belief that securing research funding is an often biased and inefficient process within the existing system (Murray et al., 2016; Krimsky, 2013; Larivière, 2018). Worth noting, it can distract scientists from focusing on the research they conduct. According to Rouse (2016), U.S. university faculty members spend “40 percent of their research time navigating the bureaucratic labyrinth, and the situation is no better in Europe.” But not only do scientists write - they spend significant time reading others’ work through the peer-review process, this results in a double loss of time. We can however argue that the problem is not the time spent writing grants or reading. The problem is having a project rejected. The true metric is not the time spent asking for grants but rather the ratio of the time spent to ask for a grant/research time created by the grant. For example, spending 6 months seeking a grant would not be an issue if the effective research time approved is 3 or 4 years.
Inefficiencies in securing funding have resulted in a decline in research funding over time, resulting in an acknowledged funding crisis (O'Grady, 2022; Malakoff, 2020, Mannix, 2022, Owens, 2022; Richardson, 2021, Enago Academy, 2022). The DeSci movement has therefore criticized the current funding model as inefficient and undermining scientific progress. Additionally, they argue there are few funding mechanisms available, and that funding decisions are often made with limited transparency (Mietchen, 2014) and a longer turnaround time (Horbach et al., 2022). They believe the distribution of funds remains under the control of influential, centralized groups of researchers and that funders have become increasingly inclined to prioritize established researchers, hindering the progress of new scientists and stifling intellectually ambitious projects. It must, however, be acknowledged that grants such as the ERC Starting Grant, ANR, and Ambizione funding are available, specific to young researchers.
The DeSci movement believes that by implementing blockchain protocols, scientists can establish sustainable, long-term funding. Other strategies involve experimenting with various incentive structures and incorporating mechanisms developed by DAOs, governance, and blockchain-based public good funding models e.g. quadratic funding, deemed by Gitcoin as the "mathematically optimal way to fund an ecosystem democratically," and retroactive funding, which is centered on the idea that "it's easier to agree on what was useful than what will be useful." Lastly, DeSci seeks to reinvest the value generated from commercialized outputs, like IP-NFTs, back into further research, and self-sustaining scientific communities could be established.
Lastly, we must question the necessity of decentralized funding in the landscape as we know it, as institutions, foundations, universities, regions, and countries offer “virtual” decentralization through a democratic allocation (voting) system. The issue arises: while it is true that many will choose to allocate funding to one specific project, it is unrealistic to think that in the digital age, this choice would not be influenced by certain influencers. The choice is de facto centralized, and the choice is further driven by profit - who pays the influencer, and who can afford this?
DeSci’s crowdfunding science model, however, faces several limitations. Firstly, what interests the public or a particular community e.g. a DAO, may not align with the research interests of the relevant scientists. Decentralized scientific research often involves highly specialized topics that may not have immediate appeal to the general public, and as such, it may be difficult to attract crowdfunding support for certain projects. Secondly, while crowdfunding can provide a valuable source of funding for scientific research, it is not a panacea. Crowdfunding campaigns often require a significant undertaking of effort and resources to promote, and there is no guarantee that a campaign will have success or come to fruition. Also, even if a crowdfunding campaign is successful in raising funds, it may still be inefficient to cover the cost of hiring a single researcher. For instance, if a researcher's salary is €65,000 (which is the minimum) per year, it would require 6,500 people to donate €10 each just to cover the cost of that researcher's salary, and therefore may not be a viable funding option for these types of decentralized research projects.
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