Shifting Ideas to Reality
March of 2021 saw the first auction of a non-fungible token (NFTs) pointing to experimental data. The proceeds from one such auction will be used to fund a replication study, pointing to new possibilities for how humans might turn ideas into memes and artifacts. [0,1,2]
TL;DR: NFTs may act as an address for an idea; making it easier for communities to legitimize, commercialize, or refute the idea.
Have you ever had a strong belief about how the future would play out, but saw no way to act on it?
Or perhaps you have heard a researcher pitch their thesis, and immediately felt that it was a dead end… or the start of something huge?
Scientific non-fungible tokens empower anyone to put currency behind an idea and potentially turn it into a reality…
…even when the idea is not directly marketable.
…even when the person who had the idea is not an academic or investor.
A network of attributions could allow the idea — or its relatives— to snowball towards legitimacy; of becoming not just as a topic of discussion, but perhaps even as a product.
Some of the decentralized dynamics described forthcoming are still science fiction. Most, however, already exist.
These ethereal ‘lego’ pieces can be built into a second scientific revolution.
WTF is an NFT
This article is focused on ‘non-fungible tokens’. This standard can be applied across blockchains. In essence:
Each NFT has a unique address on a permanent, distributed ledger.
Each NFT can point to other resources; perhaps a URL that contains a picture or data set.
Each NFT can be transferred or destroyed.
While most NFTs are on Ethereum, there are a number of other distributed ledgers capable of supporting the same functionality (and typically, consuming considerably less energy in the process).
Many user interfaces for NFTs have been focused on minting, auctioning, or collecting. “‘NFTs are rare art” captures how these artifacts store and transfer value based on social status and speculation. However, novel coordination mechanisms seem imminent.
What was once economically impossible to study may become a lucrative niche. Speculators will be able to invest in ideas without being a venture capitalist or grants manager.
As NFTs and research platforms develop, an ethereal pipeline for turning ideas into social and material reality seems inevitable. The considerations presented here are the blueprint by which to build it.
Consideration #1: Legitimacy
NFTs can be endorsed by individuals and organizations.
The value of a scientific NFT is intimately tied to which address created it, similar to how a scientific article’s credibility is tied to its authors and the journal that published it.
Researchers are rewarded for publishing articles and securing grants. Both of these enhance a researcher’s legitimacy, based on the journal or grants agency that nodded.
Both of these processes have become tainted over time; tilted in favor of skillful operators in massive institutions rather than those doing the grunt work towards meaningful breakthroughs.
For established organizations, foundational research may seem risky when compared to incremental experiments. Institutional researchers are well rewarded for making many small bets; careers made from adding small twigs to the tree of knowledge rather than bountiful branches.
Researchers are rewarded for being productive rather than being right .. ‘for building ever upward instead of checking the foundations’ • Once enough weak studies have amassed, they create a collective perception of strength.
Atlantic | May 2019
Unimaginative experiments, that are following an old paradigm, come with a greater confidence in acquiring the coveted “p <.05”.
If a researcher has too many experiments without “significant” findings, they may have difficulty securing grants later. This dynamic does not just stifle innovation: it blinds us to truths.
Bold new theories tend to emerge from the fringe before being legitimized by the more prestigious journals. Surely, it must be tempting to reject new theories that might ruin the reputation of one’s self and peers: when a true paradigm shift occurs, it is hard to not see the field’s scholars as intellectual loafers.
NFTs open an alternate route for ideas to gain traction.
Anyone can publish a theory or dataset as an NFT. Over time, that NFT— which has a permanent, unique address — can receive endorsements from notable individuals and organizations. These endorsements (and potentially, their retraction) are a matter of public record if done on conventional blockchains. Alternatively, ‘verifiable claims’ allow attestations to be verified and retracted without making them a matter of public record.
If a science NFT auction is successful, that alone is a strong signal of legitimacy: at least those making bids think the idea is worth something.
It seems likely that reputable organizations will endorse NFTs before they are auctioned. This gives credibility if the ‘minter’ is not yet reputable, and it signals that the idea is worth the attention of scientific speculators.
If endorsements come after the NFT’s auction, this should increase their resale value. Zora, a NFT minting platform, has a feature that leverages this.
Each time a Zora NFT is resold, a fraction of that Ether is sent to the ‘minter’. This creates a large ‘upside’ for research that may not be of much value initially, but later proves to be foundational.
Consideration #2: Attribution
NFTs can list multiple creators, enabling sharing wealth and decision making.
All ideas come from re-arranging existing pieces.
It’s difficult to give proper credit to an idea’s fore bearers without opening up reputational and financial liability. What if the idea’s ‘parent’ says your work is illegitimate? What if a partnering institution claims IP rights over the idea?
We see researchers choosing who to include as a co-author, not on the basis of who did the work, but whether their inclusion or exclusion might bring about political benefits. How many articles co-authored by Fauci were written by the other authors’ uncredited grad students?
When we see credit moving from academia to the commercial world, matters become even darker. A protracted battle over the IP for CRISPR between MIT and UC Berkeley has created uncertainty over the “ownership” of a technology created by nature. This uncertainty has impeded the commercial development of gene therapies. As with stem cell therapies, the true potential of gene therapies like CRISPR is nearly impossible to evaluate within the modern system.
This uncomfortable relationship between academia and industry has blossomed into a “Pharmacological Innovation Crisis”. The financial return for innovative research has not keep pace with the greed of industry and the complicity of institutional researchers.
Researchers in many institutions are not able to negotiate on their own; instead an “office of technology transfer” deals on their behalf. This rent seeking — made by supposedly benevolent organizations — leaves many projects stillborn.
Mirror, a Medium-like NFT minting platform, has already implemented a “splitting” feature. Splitting allows profits to be shared between collaborators when the NFT is auctioned, and potentially forever after each time the NFT is exchanged. 
A research NFT could share its proceeds among its creators equally, or percentages could be defined explicitly. The fractional nature of ownership as defined in each “split” should permit more research assistants, supporting organizations, and preceding researchers to see a return from their contributions to the research.
These splits could be recursive, incentivizing a community to see an idea come to fruition… without pulling knives out when it comes time to carve out shares of the booty.
Lastly, as splits could eventually define both economic and voting rights, researchers could retain control over important decisions, even if speculative investors might receive the majority of the profits.
Consideration #3: Composability
Composable NFTs can contain other tokens — including other NFTs.
NFTs are able to manage their sub tokens, like an authorized user can control apps on an operating system. Holders of these complex NFTs could invest financial resources to drive development, or perhaps pool data assets together for a platform like Ocean.
Conversely, ‘decentralized organizations’ can control NFTs through their own decision making processes. This should facilitate research collectives to build verticals capable of driving ideas from speculation to widespread discussion to commercial products.
One such example is VitaDAO; a longevity focused research venture. VitaDAO uses NFTs to represents intellectual property. Through a shared token, collaborators are to share in royalties generated from licensing data sets or the IP, with minimal reliance on lawyers and accountants.
Consideration #4: Extensibility
Extensibility allows for novel incentive models to bloom.
NFTs are naturally extensible; they can act like a key to make other engines go.
For instance: some Ether lending markets allow NFTs to be used as collateral. This loan could be used to fund additional research. Alternatively, the NFT’s value could be leveraged to generate interest, until sufficient capital for further research is acquired.
‘Knowledge markets’ are smart contracts that allow people to bet for or against an idea. We will likely see the proceeds from science NFTs being used to ‘seed’ a new knowledge market. These markets use ‘bonded curves’ so that early supporters may ‘exit’ with some profit.
Alternatively, if one thinks that an idea is important, but is not sure which conclusion is right, they might provide liquidity for the knowledge market. In doing so, they might see a return so long as the idea continues to see activity.
This ‘knowledge market’ concept is living on idea market.
These ‘knowledge markets’ will permit legitimacy to accumulate — or be refuted — over time, rather than needing to pass onerous hurdles.
As a ‘knowledge market’ gains traction, it becomes increasingly lucrative to research the idea; especially if one is trusted by the community.
It will become profitable to conduct honest and important research, regardless of the outcome.
Entrenched economic and academic systems control how research is directed and how the results are shared.
Emerging knowledge markets could disentangle researchers, clinicians, and lab technicians from their employers’ economic and reputational interests.
A mature decentralized science should allow researchers to explore fields that are currently dark, and make a living even if the data refutes the hypothesis…