Leading universities have set up research programmes into blockchain and cryptocurrencies after accepting millions of pounds from industry investors, prompting warnings that institutions were being enticed into validating a technology that remains highly contentious.
The universities of Oxford and Edinburgh, Stanford University and Princeton University have all recently announced research partnerships with cryptocurrency companies, creating new academic positions and centres, some of which will look at how the nascent sector should be regulated.
Cryptocurrencies – the most famous being Bitcoin – market themselves as an alternative form of money, based on blockchain technology that does away with the need for a central authority such as a bank to keep records of who owns what. The promise is that this could make transactions more secure, and even do away with existing currencies issued by central banks.
But, since a spike in cryptocurrency values last December, prices have crashed in some cases to just 10 per cent of their peak, and they have faced increased regulatory scrutiny, with US regulators reportedly probing price manipulation and tussles over whether currencies constitute securities. The vast majority of companies experimenting with blockchain have also ditched plans to put it into practice, many finding little practical use, according to Bloomberg.
Cooling enthusiasm has not stopped universities accepting research funding from cryptocurrency firms – and describing the technology’s future in glowing terms.
In July, Oxford’s Saïd Business School accepted a donation from Stewie Zhu, chief executive of blockchain firm Distributed Credit Chain, to create a fellowship position that will “specifically focus on the regulation and governance of cryptocurrency and the application of blockchain technology in the banking and finance industry”.
Announcing the deal, Peter Tufano, the school’s dean, said that “new technologies such as blockchain and cryptocurrencies are transforming the way we interact with finance”.
In June, Stanford announced the creation of a Center for Blockchain Research, whose initial five-year research programme is being funded by six blockchain organisations. Dan Boneh, a cryptography professor who will jointly lead the centre, stated that “blockchains will become increasingly critical to doing business globally”, in a launch announcement.
Earlier in the month, Ripple, another blockchain firm, announced that it was giving more than $50 million (£39 million) to 17 universities across the world to “support and accelerate academic research, technical development and innovation in blockchain, cryptocurrency and digital payments”.
This includes a “multimillion-dollar” donation to the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton, which, “as the regulatory conversation continues to evolve”, will “study the policy impact of cryptocurrencies and blockchain in the US and around the world”. Ripple has, however, stressed that it will not “dictate research parameters”.
Edinburgh has also established a Blockchain Technology Laboratory in partnership with cryptocurrency firm IOHK, which will research “economics, game theory, regulation and compliance, business, and law”. It is headed by Aggelos Kiayias, chair in cybersecurity and privacy – who is also chief scientist at IOHK.
David Gerard, a blockchain sceptic and author of Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain: Bitcoin, Blockchain, Ethereum & Smart Contracts, warned universities that “you have to make sure you’re not accidentally promoting something that’s false”.
“Don’t believe the hype,” he added.
Cryptocurrency firms were flush with money from selling their coins to investors, he said. “They have a lot of money now and they don’t know quite what to do with it, and they’re pouring it into trying to improve their credibility.”
A spokesman for Saïd Business School said that donors “must pass strict due diligence processes”. “Saïd Business School will make an independent recruitment decision for the fellowship and the donor will not be able to direct their research,” he said.
Other companies and research centres did not provide a comment by Times Higher Education’s deadline.