Ecosystem conventions around the funding of R&D by on-chain treasuries

This post aims to get start a discussion and solicit thoughts from a diverse set of stakeholders in regard to the funding, structuring and organisation of research & development (R&D) by on-chain treasuries.

Background

Everyone in the community is familiar with the Web3 Foundation and its role in the ecosystem. From the website:

We fund research and development teams who are building the foundation of the decentralized web.
Our industry-leading research team confronts the most difficult research problems standing between us and Web3.
Web3 Foundation Research is being done in an in-house research team, mostly located in Zug (Switzerland), as well as in collaboration with industrial projects and academic research groups.

In the Ethereum community, Vitalik’s blog - where he discusses questions, challenges and abstract concepts sets the temperature for the ecosystem and can be seen as a core driver of ecosystem innovation - it drives value, simply by inspiring people with his essays…

So what is R&D?

Research and development (R&D) funding is defined as expenditure on research, mostly in science and technology, that results in new products, processes and understanding. It includes research undertaken by, and funding from, public and private sectors UK Parliament, Research and Development Funding Policy

Why is R&D valuable?

Researchers are driven by curiosity – by a desire to ask fundamental questions about how the world works and why – and by a drive to solve problems at the intersection of knowledge and societal need.

By supporting research, we advance the frontiers of knowledge, increasing our understanding of the world and of each other.

We form global collaborations and alliances.

We invent the highly disruptive new technologies which can transform the world around us,improving living standards and health outcomes.

And we use these insights to tackle the greatest challenges facing the world – those that cross boundaries and impact on our whole society.

UK Research and Development Roadmap

Can we think of on-chain R&D as a new domain?

Since the technology is so new, there are very few certainties or relevant experience, other than that gained by simply ‘doing’. As a result on-chain R&D covers every area of a live project and indeed its relationships within an interoperable environment - from maintenance to upgrades, from moderation to media, governance to real world adoption - it is in simple terms, the knowledge acquired through the mere existence of contributing consistently within a network of peers.

On-chain R&D can be delivered by individuals, teams or collectives and is focused on time spent asking questions, researching problems which then develop into core insights, which resolve as projects and recruitment of talent and the packaging of teams that then feed into public treasuries.

In this regard it feels like it occupies a different space to the more ‘off-chain’ R&D that feeds into the distributed systems work of the W3F and the software project overall. Currently both Kusama and Polkadot projects tend to fund projects - the R&D, as with most organisations is not costed.

The area of is R&D is perhaps one of most divisive, hard to explain and indeed value. This is not just a challenge within the Polkadot domain, it is generally been one of the biggest challenges faced by individuals, companies and institutions, since most R&D leads to dead ends, does not have immediate or obvious applications and commercial exploitation may be years, or even decades in the making.

R&D is not domain specific - it exists everywhere, even if the terms and language may change. What is more, it is generally recognised that major innovations within industry domains come from those who may not be experts, but who recombine ideas from outside the status quo to present perspectives that are not obvious.

My own particular experience has been in Edgeware where the community felt my contributions were valuable enough to fund, but it was always difficult to explain and hard to value. I was charging for time spent actively sourcing, developing and coordinating proposals, figuring out on-chain governance processes, and trying to organise a fully decentralised network of holders - new territory.

The ecosystem is funding an external R&D organisation (Messari) - but there is maybe a path to developing our own on-chain R&D, as first noted in Creating the Messari of DotSama.

Beginning the journey in Kusama, again, R&D is a difficult thing to present - and it can cause friction, since it seems that there is payment for ‘no output’.

Yet research and development - blogs, essays and long form writing of both a quantitative and qualitative nature provide us with context, introduce insights and help people to see problems from new angles - that in turn, lead to novel mechanisms, products and services that would not otherwise exist.

The Fellowship’s collective can be seen as an emerging R&D org since the aim is for members to earn a living wage, but its focus is on the core development of the protocol - there is a danger that the lack of engagement of members in on-chain governance and other emerging ecosystem domains, leading to a siloing of knowledge and experience, as those who are best placed to push upgrades miss valuable insights elsewhere.

Questions

Would love to hear from W3F and Parity about their processes, evaluations and indeed funding structures and the way they present and/or consider the role of R&D - as well as others who have worked in academia, or may find themselves in quasi R&D position in their native domain or within the emerging Substrate ecosystem.

Outcomes

If we can agree that Substrate/Polkadot represents a melting pot of many different areas (distributed systems/tech/economics/social science/arts to name a few) and that in the case of mainnet deployments we are really discovering and generating new knowledge based on the lived experience of building these social structures, we may more easily figure ways to structure, organise, fund, document and value R&D groups, who will better cross-fertilise ideas and indeed drive forward the development of the ecosystem.

Maybe we can fund R&D, to structure the R&D? This can also be seen as a way to kickstart on-chain collectives who would receive delegations from holders. Open to ideas.

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It’s a good topic you’ve raised. I think community-driven R&D isn’t currently as existent as it needs to be. But that’s understandable, since R&D (especially the research part) requires some level of expertise and isn’t a common area that people dive into.

Perhaps the best place to start regarding community-driven R&D is to set up educational campaigns targeted at those who are interested in this area. Kind of like a structured program similar to Polkadot Blockchain Academy, but with a research component. This could include stuff like literature reviews, how to write papers, hypothesis testing, benchmarking, code reviews, etc.

I also think R&D shouldn’t include just the technical component but the social component too. For example, community-centered research like the community’s perception of ecosystem tools like Polkadotjs UI, the staking dashboard etc, if done properly, could open up insights that’ll help shape future developments.

I agree with you that the area of research often leads no tangible output, but it adds knowledge to past work and provides direction for future research. That alone makes research worth it. For example, a paper written on the association between on-chain identities and duplicate accounts could reveal a statistically significant association. This on its own may not seem to be much, but could have a significant impact on future developments that will be made in the area of identity management and verification.

Fortunately, Parity and Web3 Foundation do value research and the ecosystem Tech Fellowship is in the pipelines to recognise such expertise.

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Financial “research” like Messari is only exposition. It’s never “original research” in the sense of R&D. We do exposition-like work in R&D too, even those of us who really suck at real exposition, but imho your two threads feel unrelated. I’ll therefore presume “financial research” is off-topic for this thread (and I replied separately in the Messari thread).

We certainly need development funding, which the fellowship hopefully achieves. We’ve maybe tweaked the fellowship for some development focused research too.

Academics do what they like, often either what they think yields quick results, or what they think journal reviewers like, not quite what we pay them for. We’ve internal hiccup from this too. We typically keep external academics on task using weekly-ish meetings involving some broad minded W3F researcher, not exactly scalable.

It’s true Vitalik and Protocol Labs inspired some academic work through blogs and grants, but really zcash inspired far more by actually deploying snarks. All these have a large early mover advantage over us, but some ideas include:

  • arkworks host calls for polkadot (soon),
  • network anonymity deployment attached to substrate/polkadot,
  • some useful MPC deployment on substrate/polkadot, and
  • parathreads could give academics the small scale deployment they think they desire.

Around this, acadmeics doing formal verification love smart contracts because smart contract are basically impossible to secure, so their methods can really shine. Industry needs something they can deploy securely without doing formal security proofs, aka parachains or parathreads. Your parathread has no flash loans in you do not put in flash loans! Ideas:

  • sell the paplied security folk on parachains vs smart contract, and
  • promote threat models in which parachain can be secure but smart contracts cannot be secure.

I think the Tor Project maybe the only distributed systems project that really scaled up their academic collaborations sensibly, which occurred because Tor wrote many government grant proposals in collaboration with academics. Academics interested in government grants for academic-industry partnerships maybe listen more clearly, but this requires us putting in the hours to help them write grants.

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thanks for response -

For sure - it’s about finding good questions to ask in a far more exploratory way than settling on a problem and seeking to solve it - e.g. we need better UX/UI of wallets. That is of course useful, but it also presumes a certain amount and doesn’t get to the interesting areas a more experimental (artistic) approach might - what if onboarding had no wallet?

Wallet-less onboarding (Experimental concept)

This approach absolutely has to be multidisciplinary - the connective tissue that generally binds these experimental orgs are things like values and vision, rather than just assembling a whole bunch of creators, or devs or economists, that way you get more interesting recombinations of ideas, concepts and experiments, generally through naivete - you don’t know what you don’t know, so tend to ask questions experts wouldn’t.

The question is what can Parity/W3F not do - or not do alone…

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Clarified in the original post, but ostensibly yes. The key is:

The Fellowship is one example org and you outline some interesting areas for research, the question becomes what else can follow / or operate in parallel…

Which leads us to:

And:

To deliver us ‘education’ but in a more playful way:

This lateral approach is what effective polkadot education will look like - it’s creative contribution, cooperation and play, that unlocks new knowledge, creating foundations for creative output that will be far more interesting, inspiring and ultimately original, than the standard marketing approaches we currently see, and ultimately bootstraps use of the underlying tech in the process.

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You’ve maybe missed my point that academics require hand holding, which requires bandwidth from internal people. This is our limiting factor, not funding. It’ll maybe slowly improve after we’ve released more papers of course, but they require time now too.

We participated in the ZPrise thing but it wound up largely irrelevant for Polkadot itself short-term, although helpful for a couple ecosystem projects like Manta. A priori, I’d expect flashy “research” spending without careful guidance winds up completely useless.

For sure - not suggesting otherwise - academia is one area to mine talent for R&D, but not all of it - in fact that is really the exciting aspect that we can bring educational programmes that leverage some of the process and rigour that you mentioned to people who would not ordinarily have access to it.

I guess the root of some of this prodding is asking if we might be in a position - or certainly have the emerging potential to address the scaling issues you note whilst unlocking novel areas of investigation and exploration.

On a related note these two papers connect to the original subject / purpose:

This essay proposes a map for four domains of creative exploration—Science, Engineering, Design and Art—in an attempt to represent the antidisciplinary hypothesis: that knowledge can no longer be ascribed to, or produced within, disciplinary boundaries, but is entirely entangled.

a number of policy experts and policymakers have argued for public R&D programs structured similarly to the U.S. government-sponsored Manhattan Project or Project Apollo.1 Reflecting their focus on the achievement of specific objectives in support of governmental goals, these historic programs are examples of a much broader class of publicly funded programs in “mission-oriented research.”