Epochs of open science

How the digital renaissance has given rise to a 'new world philosophy' and ignited a social movement that's revolutionizing the scientific system.

Epochs of open science
Photo by Calvin Craig / Unsplash

The coordination layer of the internet is expanding.

DAOs are sprouting up everywhere. Some of which are tackling the world's most pressing problems. Web3 builders are constructing robust, viable alternatives to broken legacy systems—block-by-block—in what is beginning to look a lot like a revolution.

If DeFi wasn't the tipping point, NFTs revolutionizing the creative economy certainly was. It brought tens, if not hundreds of thousands of new entrants to the space. Many of which have since gone down the rabbit hole, only to discover an entirely new realm of possibilities for blockchain. Now, the latest emergent property of the ecosystem is DeSci, and it's on a mission to revolutionize science.

Welcome to the digital renaissance

In the 15th and 16th centuries, an entanglement of artistry and wealth led to an explosion of innovation. For one of the first times in history, diverse European cultures were coming together to share their creations and ideas. As a result, the renaissance quickly became a philosophical movement, leading to scientific and technological breakthroughs. [1]

Galileo invented the telescope during the renaissance, which allowed the field of astronomy to blossom into the discipline it is today. The microscope, which revolutionized how we study microbes, bacteria, and disease was a renaissance invention. And one of the most notable inventions of the renaissance—possibly of human history—was the printing press, which allowed us to greatly scale access to knowledge, drastically influencing the development of modern civilization.

It's all happening again.

An infusion of art and wealth, catalyzed by NFTs, has taken the internet by storm. People from all corners of the globe are sharing ideas about how web3 can change everything.

A new world philosophy is taking shape.

DeSci is yet another example of how these movements spread. A branching off—if you will—of the macro-movement into micro-communities with their own sub-cultures and visions for how web3 can shape the future.

At the rate I've seen things going, DeSci won't stay micro for long. Just like the telescope, the microscope, and the printing press became the canonical tools of their trade; eventually, all artists will use NFTs. Eventually, all scientists will be part of DeSci.

The truth is in the fundamentals

Artists need to make a living and have struggled with problems related to copyright, authenticity, and fair compensation. NFTs solve this.

Scientists need intellectual freedom and have struggled to break free from the multi-billion dollar publication system that has imprisoned them, hemorrhaging scientific progress. DeSci solves this. [2]

The NFT is to art what the IP-NFT is to DeSci. A legally binding NFT with IP rights embedded in metadata. IP-NFTs enable scientific developments, like an algorithm or the discovery of a drug, to be licensed for use under rules set by a community of scientists rather than a for-profit organization. But IP-NFTs are just the tip of the iceberg.

At talentDAO, we're building the first decentralized scientific publishing protocol for the social sciences. We'll leverage the DeSci community to govern the peer-review process and integrate reputation and identity protocols to ensure accountability and equity remain central to the scientific process.

At the same time, DeSci Labs is building Nodes, a tool for scientists to mint their work to the on-chain scientific record. By replacing the PDF standard with a dynamic research artifact that acts as your repository, [e.g., pre-print, data, code, etc.] they're enabling verifiability and reproducibility across an enormous breadth of scientific disciplines.

Virtual labs are a personal favorite of mine. I've been watching from the sidelines as LabDAO leads the charge on building a decentralized digital workspace for scientific experimentation, which is desperately needed for collaboration in the digital era.

And because tokens enable individuals and organizations to fund science projects directly and without restrictions, DeSci represents a new level of scientific freedom that was previously impossible under the existing infra. [3]

Even as early as we are right now, with most DeSci DAOs hovering at ~1 year old, the new world philosophy behind the digital renaissance continues to spread.

MoonDAO may be the first DAO to attempt decentralized rocket science. They've raised millions to democratize access to space with plans to open source the rocket and satellite tech they develop—something I believe is critical to the equitable growth of the space economy.

Open source is core to the new world philosophy adopted by those building in web3. It's no surprise to see it echoed throughout DeSci. While the open science movement has been slow to gain traction, web3's ability to realign incentives could change that.

Open source as behavior

The idea behind open source is simple: some information [or collection thereof] is made freely and publicly available for others to utilize and build upon. This could be some source code, a book, instructions for how to build a motorcycle or anything in between.

At its core, open source is about sharing knowledge and resources—behaviors that are critical components of innovation.

Consider Bell Labs in the 1950s: computing pioneers like Richard Hamming were involved in tech communities where knowledge and resource sharing were the norm. To have the best machine possible to run his compute-intensive models, Hamming would coordinate with a community of technologists to rent out a shared one. [4]

Eventually, Bell Labs found it cheaper to get Hamming his own machine, but the very act of sharing high utility resources to advance scientific and technological progress seems to be fundamental to how we achieve it. Today, some of the most fundamental tech in your personal computer was once a Bell Labs experiment.

Renting out a computer may not exactly be open source, but what matters is the presence of knowledge and resource-sharing behaviors in these communities. Bell Labs was known for an idea-rich culture that stimulated its inventiveness.

The presence of these behaviors in DeSci at least partially explains why the movement can seem so attractive to scientists. Sharing knowledge and resources for others to utilize and build upon is exactly how we achieve scientific progress. If that doesn't explain it, consider how the current scientific system has strayed from this idea, while most scientists have not.

Call me crazy, but I have a hunch that what's coming out of the early days of decentralized science may very well be seen as revolutionary in a few decades from now.

Today's Bell Labs is internet native—not with one company, but with a network of human organizations.

Upholding the scientific system

Even with the complex challenges that come with decentralized organizing, I'm beginning to think it's a big reason why we're so rapidly innovating. What is lost in productivity is gained in ingenuity.

One quickly learns in this space that software isn't the only thing that needs decentralizing. DeSci needs decentralized hardware too. Complex scientific work requires GPU clusters designed to run resource-intensive computing processes like protein folding, genetic sequencing, and training neural networks—some of the most important scientific work of our time.

When members of the community begin donating their hardware for the cause, it's an indicator you're onto something worth building. I'm lucky enough to experience this in my own work collaborating with the LabDAO ML team on Project Lion.

Typically, the compute required to run complex scientific models is not accessible to the average individual. Chip shortages today make this a greater challenge. By offering up their GPUs to the community, other scientists can leverage the compute to run their own models in a virtual lab, much like Hamming and his colleagues rented hardware to run theirs. This idea is still early, and its not entirely novel, but the sentiment is powerful.

In a win-win for science—the researcher runs her model and the donor gets to contribute to scientific progress.

But this also emphasizes another core ideal of the new world philosophy: members of the community operate their own nodes to uphold the network.

This same ethos extends into DeSci, where community members operate their own hardware to uphold the scientific system.

I'm excited to see more of this behavior as DeSci moves to becomes the macro-movement it's poised to be.

While web3 isn't without its flaws, its the first reasonable strategy I've heard for fixing science. To see it through, we'll have to keep innovating; sharing our ideas, resources, and learnings with one another. The scientific system is one of the most fundamental elements of a functioning society, decentralized or otherwise. Rebuilding it will take a village.

Footnotes

  1. Severy, Merle Thomas B Allen; Ross Bennett; Jules B Billard; Russell Bourne; Edward Lanoutte; David F Robinson; Verla Lee Smith, The renaissance – maker of modern man, 1970
  2. Philipp Koellinger, Christian Roessler, Christopher Hill, Why we need to fundamentally rethink scientific publishing, 2021
  3. E.g., Gitcoin, SCRF, and OceanDAO; more significantly, DAOs can launch their own tokens to raise money for scientific work.
  4. Richard Hamming, The Art of Doing Science and Engineering, 1997

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