In 16th century Britain, William Lee, a clergyman from Calverton, Nottinghamshire developed an alternative method of producing wool garments via a mechanised knitting machine. His invention stood to significantly increase the speed at which clothing could be produced when compared to knitting done by hand.
Buoyed by the potential of what he had created, in 1589 Lee travelled to London to seek an audience with the reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth I to secure a patent for his invention. After granting him court and reviewing his creation, she refused Lee, stating instead:
“My Lord, I have too much love to my poor people, who obtain their bread by the employment of knitting, to give my money to forward an invention which will tend to their ruin, by depriving them of employment, and thus make them beggars.”
In contrast, in the year 1600, a group of English merchants petitioned Queen Elizabeth I to grant them a charter to explore the East Indies in a bid to establish trade in lucrative spices such as clove and nutmeg. The Queen granted these adventurers a royal charter allowing them an effective monopoly on all English trade within this region.
This group of adventurers formed what is known today as the East India Company. A company which at its peak, would go on to become the largest corporate entity of its time. While Lee was unable to fully realise the potential of his machine, history would credit his invention as a key starting point in the mechanisation of textile production and a precursor to the industrial revolution that would take place in Britain nearly 200 years later.
The stark difference in outcome between William Lee, and the adventurers, represent a system of permissioned innovation that was common place in 16th century Britain. The adverse impact of which only served to stifle technological progress in which the resulting economic benefits accrued to the few at the expense of the many.
While the world has progressed significantly since the 16th century, we have somehow found the same crisis repeating itself in one of the world’s most crucial theatres of innovation, science. Except, instead of a monarch with the divine right of kings as their mandate playing the role of innovation arbiter, it is the largest contributors of grant-funded science research, National Institutes of Health (NIH), as well as a cabal of other grant-provisioning organisations.
The crisis scientific researchers face today is very similar to the one William Lee faced in the 16th century; in effect, a few entities are able to decide the innovations that are worth pursuing, and those that are not. The root cause of this crisis is buried in how the majority of scientists today fund their research, through grants. Applications for grant funding is such a key part of a researcher’s role that a recent observational study of 285 biomedical researchers showed that an estimated 550 working years of time is spent writing proposals. This is exacerbated by average grant approvals sitting at less than 20% - meaning a significant proportion of time spent has no immediate benefit.
Therefore, when the limited funding sources available to researchers is combined with the increasing competitiveness of grant approvals, select organisations with sufficient capital come to wield an outsized influence on the direction of scientific innovation; in much the same way Queen Elizabeth I was able to. Scientists are no longer pursing lines of research that may be best for humankind, but instead, research that is most likely to be funded. This system has not only stymied innovation in science, but it has contributed to the Replication Crisis, wherein most published research findings are thought to be false because they cannot be replicated.
Science’s Come-to-Jesus Moment
Realising that a system of sovereigns awarding patents was increasingly becoming abused, in 1623 Parliament passed the Statute of Monopolies Act which crucially transferred the powers of patent issuing away from the monarchy, to the common law courts.
This Act was significant because it was not only the first statutory expression of patent law in Britain, but it would also form the basis on which future intellectual property precedent would be set. A well-functioning patent system was a crucial precursor to the industrial revolution because it ensured individuals could pursue their inventions without fear of interference from capricious royals. If the process of patent issuing had not moved away from monarchy absolutism, to pluralism in common law courts, it is unlikely the industrial revolution would have developed in the way that it did 200 years later.
Similarly, what will come to be known as the precursor to the scientific industrial revolution in the next 200 years is happening right now, and it’s called decentralised science (DeSci). DeSci, particularly as it relates to funding, aims to unlock greater innovation in scientific research by democratising access to the capital that many scientists currently rely on grants to provide.
Molecule DAO is accomplishing just that by leveraging web3 communities to create a marketplace between researchers seeking funding, with patrons willing to back them. These patrons are then able to represent their ownership in any future potential commercialisation of the research in the form of an IP-NFT; therefore, eliminating the need for researchers to rely on centralised funding bodies.
This new paradigm in permissionless funding of scientific research, indicates that the vectors along which innovation can occur is now unbounded. This is evidenced by additional DAOs spinning out with the sole purpose of funding incrementally niche areas of research. For example, VitaDAO is a community committed to funding research in longevity that has since allocated over $2.5 million in grants.
While DeSci is still early, there are promising signs that democratisation in research funding will be an important precursor to the next phase of scientific innovation, in the same way democratisation in patent issuing was for the industrial revolution. I predict that a vibrant new funding ecosystem will imbue a sense of dynamism in the next generation of innovators or, Entrepreneurs in Science (EiS), who are willing to take big bets in the research that they pursue because they are no longer hamstrung by archaic funding politics.
Even though the benefits of the structural funding changes taking place right now will not be borne out in our lifetime, we must remember William Lee, the clergyman from Calverton, and plant the seeds today in order to ensure the revolution 200 years from now.