The British government is considering paying out research grants with bitcoin

The British government is speeding towards a blockchain.
The British government is speeding towards a blockchain.
Image: Reuters/Luke Macgregor
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The United Kingdom’s government is exploring using bitcoin, or some permutation of the blockchain technology that underpins it, to pay out and monitor taxpayer-funded research grants.

Matthew Hancock, the minister for the Cabinet Office and paymaster general, said today the cabinet had begun exploring ways to use blockchains in the government, with a particular interest in how it could be used in the disbursal of government research grants.

“Monitoring and controlling the use of grants is incredibly complex. A blockchain, accessible to all the parties involved, might be a better way of solving that problem,” Hancock said in a speech at Digital Catapult, a government-funded think tank. Hancock cited bitcoin as a successful example of ”distributed ledgers,” another phrase for blockchains, being used to track currency.

Politicians are often wary of linking blockchain initiatives–usually promoted because of their potential to cut costs and increase transparency–to bitcoin, the cryptocurrency that fuels the dark web’s black markets. George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, has preferred the term “digital currency” when he publicly discussed bitcoin and its ilk in the past.

But the Cabinet Office showed little reluctance to discuss bitcoin. A spokesperson said the use of bitcoin to disburse funds was “a possibility” and that the office isn’t ruling out any particular technology. “The government is looking into any sort of blockchain technique, bitcoin is one of those. It is open to all ideas,” the spokesperson said. ”There are a number of areas blockchains can be used, including government grants. It can be used to track the money and it gets tax payers a better deal, potentially.”

The Cabinet Office didn’t provide further details on its blockchain work.

The British government has steadily grown more vocal in its support for bitcoin and blockchains. Osborne used a bitcoin ATM in 2014, and talked up its importance in making the UK a leading financial technology center. Last year, he went further, announcing £10 million ($14.5 million) in funding for think tanks, including Digital Catapult, to study the technology.

The government’s chief scientist has also studied the technology, publishing a report in January. A chapter of the report was devoted to uses of blockchains within government. “If applied within government it could reduce costs, increase transparency, improve citizens’ financial inclusion and promote innovation and economic growth,” the report said.