Every graduate student in the biomedical sciences has a 'super-top-secret-side-project'. The high cost of science means that most lines of investigation require permission from the lab head. Have a new idea? Ask the boss. The hierarchies of academic science don’t help. But students will experiment on the side, in the quiet hours of the night when the lab is dark, without permission. If the experiments don't work, no one ever knows. But if the idea is right and the experiment is a success, then the young scientist will go to the PI beaming with pride, showing that their idea worked. In the past few years, this permissionless ethos is found in fields as far-ranging as finance, journalism, therapy, art, and beyond. A new permissionless economy has arrived and no one will ask to send it back.
The term permissionless has only recently been minted. Its primary use is to describe settings on a blockchain — a permissionless blockchain allows anyone to write to that blockchain ledger. This likely explains the uptick in usage in the late 2000s, pictured above. But beyond this technical definition, permissionless is synonymous with an attitude of experimentation, collaboration, and sharing, and an approach that that empowers individuals. It's not surprising then that these ideals are also baked into the blockchain, decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOS), and other technologies driving Web3. Permissionless means individuals just try it.
In practice, a new permissionless economy is being applied in several ways, but all have a consistent theme.
In each of these fields, the traditional approach has gatekeepers, credentialing requirements, and barriers to entry. In a permissionless economy, tools and resources enable anyone to enter, experiment, and thrive. It's not about asking for permission or asking for forgiveness; instead, the permissionless ethos is about anybody exploring anything they want. Looking again at the short list above, the consistent theme is that individuals can accomplish today what previously required established institutions.
What about permissionless science? Experimentation is clearly a character trait of scientists. And the top-secret side project is a rite of passage. But specialized equipment and technical requirements mean that permissionless science hasn't swept the lab; yet. But like all established fields, change is coming.
Take this side project: Heureka labs. I didn’t ask permission before starting this experiment in writing and community building. Before starting a YouTube channel. Before diving into data science. Before building data-driven hypothesis. But what do these projects have to do with permissionless science? Modern-day science has three challenges — historical relics that hold it back. First, the process to get funding has gatekeepers and institutions that slow the pace of science and disincentivize innovation and creativity. Second, the process of carrying out science is stuck in historical approaches and is not keeping up with modern technologies and data. Third, the process to share science requires months-to-years-long battles with editors and reviewers that often don't make the science better. How can a lab overcome these challenges? Permissionless top-secret side-projects in science.
Imagine labs that could self-fund: raise money, build platforms, and contribute to and partially own digital assets. Imagine taking a scientific approach where enough data support a hypothesis that all-but-guarantee experimental success. Imagine sharing scientific discoveries as they're made, in real-time, getting credit for and possible future royalties from them. Technologies and platforms are being built that will enable this permissionless future.
But this future isn't restricted to science — just my future. The transition between web1 (a hyperlinked library) and web2 (social networks) meant that anyone had a platform. As this transition continues to what is being called web3, barriers are falling, communities are forming, and individuals are enabled to build the future.
In science, and in life, you get going down a path. Of course, there are barriers to going in a new direction: "we don’t do that" or "that's not our area". But a permissionless attitude — along with a special combination of fearlessness and naïveté — empowers anyone to do anything. When it comes to your next super top-secret side project, don’t wait to ask permission.