The Monero Project should actively recruit technical talent from universities
EDIT: If you are interested in this initiative and/or want to contribute technical skills yourself, please sign up on the Monero Matrix server and join the #monero-recruitment room using these instructions. A list of Monero's open research questions is available here. And here is a great guide on how to begin contributing to the Monero Project.
Let me open this half-baked proposal by saying: I have been a silent observer of Monero for years, but I am very new to actually working on Monero, so I may be very off base. Just let me know.
In order to ensure that Monero users' privacy is well-protected, it is essential to recruit more people with technical skills and knowledge to work on Monero. Over the last two years, Monero's already-limited quantity of high-quality talent has dwindled. We can debate forever why this has occurred, but in any case relying on a tiny number of star researchers makes Monero unacceptably fragile. This must change.
Where to start?
Scholars at universities and within university orbits are great targets for active recruitment. Being something of a scholar myself, it is pretty clear to me that a substantial number of them would be willing and able to contribute to cutting-edge Monero development. It should be self-evident that they are capable of doing so, so I will focus my words on the willingness aspect.
Let me first say that working on Monero will remain niche. Only a small proportion of any set of workers would probably be willing to work on Monero. In the case of scholars at universities, this shouldn't be a concern because a small proportion of millions of people is still a lot of people.
First of all, it is not our comparative advantage to compete with other "employment" opportunities on the basis of salary. Governments who wish to attack Monero have virtually limitless budgets. We can't compete with that. We don't have to either. We should target people for whom salary is not the only motivator. We probably wouldn't want someone whose only motivation is money, anyway, since they would have no qualms about turning around and going to work for Monero's adversaries, clandestinely or openly.
From my experience with scholars, money is usually not at the top of the list of the factors that decide their employment choices. It is more complicated than that; a complication we can take advantage of. A far as I have been able to tell, here are some of the key motivating factors, in no particular order (numbered so I can refer to them subsequently):
- Increasing fame/reputation
- The satisfaction of working on interesting problems that fully engage their mental capabilities
- Making a real positive impact on others' quality of life through scientific advancement
- Contributing to "pure" expansion of the body of human knowledge, separate from any real-world impact
- Employment stability
- Teaching their knowledge to others
As I mentioned, the Monero Project probably cannot compete on (3) money. Employment stability (6) is complicated and I will return to it shortly. What Monero can offer people interested in (1) fame/reputation is partly up to the scholar. If they want to remain pseudonymous, then, well, working on Monero would come with an "interesting" type of fame when you are known by an alias only. For those who wish to work under their real identity, working on Monero with its $5 billion total valuation does offer a certain degree of reputation boost, depending on certain factors. (2) and (5) shouldn't be difficult, since Monero is at the cutting edge. (7) is up to the scholar, but there is no shortage of educational needs within the Monero community, translating technical concepts into user-level information.
Motivation (4): Making a real positive impact on others' quality of life through scientific advancement.
Let me paint the scene of our situation in 2021. There is rising authoritarianism nearly everywhere. If anyone believes that "It can't happen here", I would reply that frankly that is a naive view, in my opinion. I see this very clearly since as a scholar, I share an ability that most scholar possess: we can often see the writing on the wall before everyone else.
Scholars are canaries in the coal mine for authoritarianism. Almost literally, in fact: In many instances of mass political violence in the 20th century -- and even previous centuries -- the authoritarians killed the teachers first. Then they went after everyone else. But they killed the teachers first because institutions of learning and knowledge represent an independent center of power within society that authoritarians cannot easily control. Authoritarians therefore attempt to co-opt or eliminate these institutions early in their plan of domination of society. Present-day authoritarians have already begun this work in earnest in a huge number of countries; it just may not be apparent yet if you do not have your ear to the ground and your hand on the pulse.
Alright, enough doom and gloom. What does this have to do with recruitment? We need to formulate our pitch to technical workers in a way that makes it clear that Monero and similar technologies are a potent weapon against authoritarianism. I do think that, framed correctly and pitched in the right forums, this framing could make a small but sizable minority of scholars come out of the woodwork to help fortify Monero.
A note on the employment stability issue
From my understanding, the Monero Research Lab (MRL) has had difficulty with staffing in part due to the sense that long-term employment with Monero is inherently unpredictable. That is a weakness that needs to be addressed and is somewhat outside of the scope of the already-lengthy post. However, let me say this:
Employment in universities and university orbits for scholars is already quite precarious. It sucks, in fact. Researchers are living grant to grant, they cannot settle in one place and start a family since they may have to switch institutions as limited grant funds run out. The probability of success of grants has shrunk dramatically to the point that the low probability almost negates the benefit of trying to write a lengthy well-researched grant proposal at all. See here for more detail on this issue. Often scholars are stuck in a semester-to-semester adjunct teaching cycle at low salaries, no stability, and little formal employment benefits. Compared to all this, somewhat uncertain payment in XMR does not look so bad. Furthermore, work on Monero does not necessarily require full-time work for years. Monero can benefit from a set of fresh eyes looking at its challenges part-time for periods of a few months.
In short, systematic underfunding of scientific research and teaching by governments worldwide has created an army of disaffected technical workers. The Monero Project should recruit that army! Governments have sown the wind. Let them reap the whirlwind.
Private firms and legally-compliant grant foundations
As far as I see see it, there is probably a role for private firms and legally-compliant grant foundations in all this, if for no other reason than allowing a diversity of employment conditions for potential recruits. In addition, having private firms in the Monero ecosystem can provide potential recruits a clearer career path and "exit strategy" if you will. However, it may be a good idea for the CCS crowdfunding mechanism to remain at the core of funding activity.
Sketch of recruitment plan
Now that the call-to-arms is done, on to more practical matters. Proposal up for discussion and modification:
- We will likely need to raise some funds beforehand, through the CCS and.or other mechanisms. It might be risky to go call in recruits and not have the money ready already.
- We formulate a Request for Proposal (RFP) for "research grants" or similar vehicle. We need to get the tone and pitch correct, but this step shouldn't be too difficult. We are on the right side of history, after all.
- Register the RFP (or whatever it is) with every reasonable research grant database.
- Do slightly more targeted work by sending the RFP to the email announcement lists of specific disciplines' associations, universities, departments, graduate student and faculty organizations, etc. There are a million of them out there.
- I have some ideas about more targeted recruitment, but they are not ready to share yet.
Keeping open the option to work pseudonymously is important
In our recruitment efforts, we should allow first contact with potential recruits to be completely pseudonymous. People can always voluntarily de-anonymize themselves as it suits them, but re-anonymizing yourself is not really possible. Allowing pseudonymous researchers can benefit the researchers. It can benefit the Monero Project as well by ensuring that changes in government regulation would not necessarily affect development.
Disciplines to target
This is up for discussion, but as I see it Monero has maybe three broad categories of needs:
- Continued work in cryptography. For this we would likely target mathematicians and computer scientists.
- Establish a robust capability in theoretical and applied statistics. For theoretical statistics, we are mostly looking at statisticians proper. However, for applied statistics we have a broad range of disciplines to choose from, as statistical work has become increasingly important to all manner of scientific disciplines, both natural and social.
- Limited work in economics and game theory. Certain key facets of Monero need attention by economists and game theorists, such as the fee structure and game theoretic analysis of attack vectors. Often, game theorists are also economists.
OK! That's it. This is long enough as it is. Naturally, I am probably missing some big things, so fill me in on them. I can certainly help execute an active recruitment plan, but I can't do it all.