The Cell-Cell Communication Prize has shown that incentives can encourage the sharing of ideas about future scientific projects, which are normally considered confidential.
The broader methods of biomedical science evolve slowly, even when well-known leaders strongly suggest the need for new approaches. For example, Paul Nurse (Nobel Medicine, 2001) recently reminded us that Sydney Brenner (Nobel Medicine, 2002) two decades ago had a warning for biology: “We are drowning in a sea of data and starving for knowledge”. Paul Nurse added that this statement “is even more relevant to biology today” because biologists often publish data but are reluctant to suggest new ideas (Nurse, 2021).
A similar delay in methodological advances is shown by the difficulties encountered by Harold Varmus (Nobel Medicine 1989) when he started promoting open access publishing and the sharing of preprints (described in Varmus, 2009). In these cases, there has been progress in biomedicine, but only decades after other scientific fields.
A large portion of the time of academic scientists is spent writing grant applications for future projects. Only a small percentage of these are funded, due to the imbalance between the number of applicants and the resources available. The content of these applications is not made public, and this makes it impossible to combine and integrate these ideas in large-scale efforts that would promote the understanding of the most complex biomedical processes.
A similar problem of encouraging openness to benefit society has been solved for commercial inventions by the patent system, where disclosure is rewarded by the potential for a financial benefit for a limited amount of time. Laws of nature are however not eligible for patent protection, as made clear by the US Supreme Court, and other types of incentives are needed.
An open discussion of major scientific questions has been shown in particle physics to promote progress and increase support by the rest of society. It is therefore worth considering which incentives could be used to encourage a similar process in biomedicine.
Different incentives could be used at different stages, and each stage might be an advance, even if not progressing to the next. Viewing these stages together however might motivate broader components of society to participate in their development.
Please also note the final section that originates from a more recent round of discussions.
Here is a brief outline of possible stages:
The first stage is an extension of the Cell-Cell Communication Prize, which involved public recognition and a small monetary award as incentives. In addition to these, units of a digital asset could be given to the scientists contributing the best ideas. It is important to reward ideas that are not immediately recognized as important. It will therefore be desirable to provide additional larger allocations of this asset when a clear advance has been achieved in the field, so that a longer-term perspective can be used. The digital asset will be a measure of recognition but will also have a potential future monetary value. The assets will be awarded by the scientific community.
After a scientific advance, major science philanthropists can buy the digital assets. They can access independent experts and provide a validation of the initial asset distribution and of the entity of the scientific advance. The risk for the philanthropists is already reduced compared to the more usual case, where the funding is provided before a scientific advance, which might not happen. They might also sell the assets at the next stage.
The digital assets are sold to the public. Other types of digital assets, cryptocurrencies, have been criticized because they are not productive, they have a high incidence of fraud, they might undermine monetary policy, are highly volatile and their value could go to zero. They have however shown that digital assets can be based on a decentralized mechanism and can be stores of value (Finance & Development, 2022; Antony, 2021, Prasad, 2021).
Science-based digital assets can be designed to avoid the shortcomings of cryptocurrencies.
They will be productive because they will lead to increase in knowledge of important biomedical problems. They will be based on full transparency of scientific evaluations and of awards, and ownership will not be anonymous. This will reduce the potential for fraud because it will make possible to use multiple checks of the identities of the owners. Cryptocurrencies are designed for privacy, but this need does not apply to science base assets. Other assets, for example homes, are not held anonymously. Part of the motivation of ownership will be support of scientific progress, likely reducing speculative activities, and therefore volatility. These assets will not be suitable as money but will play a role similar to other stores of value like gold or art, avoiding interference with the monetary policy of national banks.
The digital assets used as science incentives can be established on a nonprofit basis, but they will also generate the need for commercial tools, like markets, derivatives or consultants. There should be a careful discussion of how to avoid biasing the underlying scientific activities. It should be possible to avoid these problems if all aspects of the initiative are fully transparent and if different parts of society participate in their open and critical evaluation.
Several economists consider knowledge one of the main foundations of economic growth and it is rational to have a store of value based on it. Public ownership will ensure that problems that are considered important by large groups of people will receive more resources. The end result will be a larger allocation of societal resources to fundamental science, and the creation of strong incentives for coordinated efforts by worldwide communities of scientists towards solving the most complex biomedical problems.
More recent discussions followed the interview with Mike Milken (see question about incentives in his interview). Further suggestions emerged and the simplest is that it might be sufficient for philanthropists to ask leaders of institutions to which they have donated to encourage their scientists to share ideas.
Essentially this would be an incentive based on gratitude.
Philanthropists are often keen to encourage collaborations because they realize that they can make a bigger difference by doing this. Many have disease-specific interests, but cell-cell communication is a fundamental process affecting most diseases and therefore would be suitable for a joint message. The philanthropists supporting this community-wide scientific discussion would receive credit for starting a process of great benefit to mankind, based on gratitude for donations that they have already given.
- Finance & Development. A Quarterly Publication of the International Monetary Fund
The Money Revolution. September 2022 | Volume 59 | Number 3
- Lewis, Antony. The basics of bitcoins and blockchains: an introduction to cryptocurrencies and the technology that powers them. Mango Media, 2021.
- Nurse, Paul. "Biology must generate ideas as well as data." Nature 597, no. 7876: 305-305. 2021.
- Prasad, Eswar S. The Future of Money: How the Digital Revolution is Transforming Currencies and Finance. Harvard University Press, 2021.
- Varmus, H., The art and politics of science. W.W. Norton, 2009.