Blockchain Science: An interview with Gemma Milne, Science Disrupt

Hi Gemma – Welcome on Chain Reaction to talk about how blockchain technology is changing scientific research.
 
What first got you interested in Blockchain?
 
I first heard about bitcoin when I was working at Ogilvy and part of my job was to be on top of future trends. I was doing a project for American Express looking at new forms of payment and in doing so, I came across bitcoin. Then I started looking at new innovations as part of another research project and discovered various potential uses of blockchain outside of payments. Since then, it was always at the back of my mind, so when we started looking at disrupting the peer-review process and the scientific publishing model as part of my work at Science Disrupt, I immediately thought about how blockchain might offer the possibility of a more open and trusted system.
 
What are you working on more broadly with Science Disrupt and how do you see blockchain fitting into that wider project?
 
Science Disrupt is predominantly a media company looking into how to disrupt science and make it better, faster and stronger. We address innovative questions like how we can change the research process and we also look at what scientific start-ups are doing to disrupt the sector. Many of the issues in the research process stem from this phenomenon of ‘publish or perish’ – with a heavy focus on publication or citation in particular journals at particular times. Ironically, it’s not necessarily always the most scientific measure of whether your science is better than someone else’s. So we have started looking at how we can change the method used in scientific publishing and improve the peer-review process. Issues include problems of data sharing, how you accurately measure someone’s status/reputation, instances of bias in the peer-review process and so on. Blockchain technology may be able to solve some of these issues because it can potentially allow for better data-sharing, and it could increase trust because it is able to keep an immutable, time-stamped audit trail of data. If we are able to track and trace the origins of an idea over time it could allow scientists to be more open and maybe less concerned about someone else taking their ideas. It would speed up and open up the research process letting scientists share their ideas at an earlier stage. My worry is that this is not really a priority in academia – there are not a lot of incentives in place or money being spent on the idea of changing how the scientific process works, so this is a cultural shift which may take a long time to take shape.
 
Do you think general public knowledge about blockchain is increasing and are people more or less sceptical about it than they used to be?
 
I think this really depends on who you ask. In my former industry – advertising and marketing – for example, I think there is a now a general of understanding of what blockchain technology is as a system but there is not a great understanding of what can actually be done with blockchains or of how to implement these ideas in the real world. There are a number of thought leaders but moving to the next stage of implementation and testing is still in its infancy. In terms of the general public, I think general knowledge of blockchain is very low and the story of the innovative possibilities of this technology has not yet really been told well. The public are more interested in juicy stories about bitcoin millionaires or dark web scandals and Ponzi schemes. Even in science, the story of how we change peer-review and the publishing industry is still a new conversation, let alone introducing how blockchain technology can help to do that – we are still very much tinkering at the margins.
 
There are various examples of how blockchain may be changing the way we conduct scientific research – for example, improving trust in clinical trials or helping with knowledge transfer and data sharing. What are some of the most interesting real-world developments you are seeing?
 

Applications of blockchain in the real world tend to exist in industries where there is a genuine commercial need like the pharmaceutical industry or the energy sector. But even in pharmaceuticals, the development of blockchain for clinical trials is still at a nascent stage. There are not very many concrete examples. Or, if there are, they are not being broadcast publicly. One important aspect of this is that moving to a culture of open data is still quite controversial and is often seen as a threat rather than an opportunity. We will need to get across that cultural barrier before we can start to talk seriously about more applications of blockchain in science.
 
More broadly, blockchain also has the potential to change other aspects of academia – like issuing qualifications on the blockchain, for example. How much of an impact do you think this will have on universities and do you see any particular universities leading the way on blockchain?
 
Verification of qualifications and academic credentials is a long and expensive process of checking information so this use case of blockchain certainly solves an administrative need. It can cut costs and maybe increase trust in academic qualifications but it is not something that fundamentally changes the way academia operates as a discipline. What could be more innovative would be the opportunity to view and follow a person’s academic track record over time. So you would be able to track someone’s full research activity over their career, not just his or her formal academic qualifications or job record. It could be almost like a Github repository of their scientific activity  – providing a new way for us to measure someone’s scientific worth and impact. Blockchain could also solve the problem of wasted scientific research efforts which then get replicated by others. Since there is currently no incentive to publish non-results, they are not known about and so researchers all over the world have to start from scratch to make the same mistakes over and over again. If blockchain technology could be used as a kind of “project manager” perhaps we could use it as a tool to access and share scientific protocols and methods so researchers no longer need to reinvent the wheel. A life sciences researcher might spend a year just creating a method for conducting an experiment but that knowledge never gets shared. Even more so, different disciplines might currently use very similar methods but would never find each other’s work so could we try to create interdisciplinary systems where these methods could be shared – like a kind of ‘infinite mind map’ for scientific methods? Other barriers that could be broken down this way would be translation barriers for research done in certain languages which doesn’t get translated to the big journals and is therefore lost, or aiding researchers who are struggling to accurately replicate their experiments.
 
What are the things that could go wrong with implementation of blockchain applications in science – the things that we need to guard against?
 

This is such a new technology and change is not going to happen overnight. There is a lack of funding for using blockchain to change the way we do science – if we compare it to, say, how much money is going into blockchain research in banking and finance. There are low incentives to change and it will take a big shift in culture for people to put trust in what they see as a new and untested system that may have bugs or technical hitches we don’t yet know about. Then we need to ask who would academics trust to build and pay for such a system in science? Science is international so one government alone may not be enough and science is funded in so many different ways it is often quite slow to change. If you look at the controversy caused when the Gates Foundation announced it would only give grants to recipients who published in open access journals, you can see the scale of the problem. It’s hard to see how we can create a unified system that encapsulates the full range of scientific research for the public good. Most likely, it will be a cluster of universities or particular countries who will need to lead the way and let others follow suit at their own pace.
 
Looking ahead to a long-term vision, what does the future of blockchain-powered research look like?
 
In a perfect world, we would end up with individuals being able to build up a repository of their scientific skills, knowledge and ongoing activity that others could tap into. That way, people could collaborate more easily on projects in a less institutionalised way. It would lead to a true, international and concentrated effort to answer scientific enquiries in real-time using all the previous knowledge humanity has accumulated. It would be like having millions of miniature research centres all over the world with not just greater availability of information but better tracking and tagging of that information allowing us to use it more effectively for the right purpose at the right time. It may also allow us to open up knowledge about which organisations hold funding and for what purposes. This is still very much a pipe dream but the idea of creating this kind of infinite mind map of scientific knowledge is very attractive. If I was an animator that’s how I’d try to represent it and, as a scientist, I think it’s a dream certainly worth striving towards.

You can find Gemma on Twitter or find our more about her work at Science Disrupt.

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