We live in an age of cultural decentralization but political and governmental consolidation. Decentralization has benefits and dangers associated with it. The largest benefit is that decentralization means parallel processing – multiple paths can be attempted while moving toward a single goal. This means that solutions to problems can come quicker, with one of the approaches being tried having the least resistance, and more efficiently, in that resources and time are not spent on trying to move forward on a single (or smaller number of) path(s) that may not be the best way to achieve the goal. The downside, obviously, is that more decentralization can lead to less oversight and a lack of a unified goal – it’s throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks.
One of the places where decentralization could have the largest impact on our lives and society is in science (and technology). As it stand right now, at least in America, science is a highly regulated, highly centralized institution. All funding must pass rigorous scrutiny in order to be awarded grants, there are many laws concerning ethics and the acquisition of scientific instruments and materials, and even having access to much of this requires a person to go through years of education.
But what if science was decentralized and deregulated?
Some possible benefits:
Lifting regulations such that burgeoning scientists can acquire scientific equipment on the free market easily and cheaply and learn how to do science from experts or knowledgeable amateurs without A) having to pay expensive university tuition (plus other fees) and B) pay for a bunch of liberal arts classes you don’t want or need and C) acquire a piece of paper that says they’re certified by the government to do science. This could also make testing new pharmaceuticals and GMO’s cheaper, easier, and faster if individuals are allowed to test their discoveries on voluntary individuals without government regulation. There would be a hand full of people working on issues – medicine, materials science, green energy – from different angles and backgrounds, coming up with novel solutions.
We know that decentralization has worked well for things like FoldIt. Imagine a world where having a working scientific knowledge about biology and biotechnology is just as common as having a working knowledge of computers and smartphones is right now. Imagine if new technologies, medicines, and scientific discoveries came out just as quickly and easily as smartphone apps and websites. How different might our world be?
But does this seem like a good idea, or does government regulation of scientific institutions and who is certified to do science make us safer? Certainly, as in anything, the potential for wrongdoing also exists. Does it help or hinder scientists and science in general?
Decentralization means that nobody has a monopoly anymore. This means more freedom, but freedom never promised to be comfortable. The loss of oversight means that there is no doctrine to be followed in helping humanity, but it also means there is no doctrine holding anyone back in potentially harming humanity, either.
One of the biggest technologies of decentralization is 3D printing. I think 3D printing has the potential to alter our economy and way of life as much as the internet, which was the biggest decentralizing technology of the 20th century. The American government is already reeling with the lack of oversight that 3D printing is beginning to bring about, with 3D printed guns. The potential here is that there is no way to track or regulate guns, but the same could hold for anything that can be 3D printed.
One technology that has only recently started to become decentralized is drone technology. Most people own small, remote-controlled drones, but the American government has held drone supremacy on the world stage when it comes to military technology. This means, of course, that the American government has set the precedence for how UAV’s can be used in battle. Once this technology gets spread around, becoming decentralized, then the precedence has been set – namely, that there is no recourse for collateral damage or killing the wrong target.
But when it comes to science, I think most people’s biggest fear comes from the potential for biological weapons. If science became more decentralized, it would make it much easier, and potentially more likely, that someone could produce a deadly bacteria or virus in their homemade laboratory. I’ve made mutant bacteria in the lab I work in numerous times, and it’s actually very easy to do. As decentralization may lead to more cures for diseases, it could also potentially create more.
And it wouldn’t have to stop at bacteria and virus. Transgenic organisms can already be made, and some people even do it as art. Imagine if gene doping was used to modify a persons own body in a way that could be artistic (think body modification a la tattoos, piercings, and implants) or beneficial in some way?
The question we would want to ask ourselves then: is it worth it to decentralize science? I think the internet, possibly 3D printing, and who knows what other discoveries may come along in the 21st century, may all answer that question for us. Technology and scientific discovery doesn’t usually stay a secret forever. The computer itself began as something very exclusive, and now almost everyone carries a computer in their pocket that would put those exclusive ones to shame. Governments are slow to react, and attempt to keep the world moving at their own pace, but the information age is showing that governments are slowly losing what control they had over this. Are you ready for the world of DIY science?