Science without Scientists
August 22, 2008
As molecular tools get cheaper, and the know-how for using them more widely distributed, I think we’re going to see a renaissance in science. The peculiar feature of this renaissance is that its going to take place outside of “science proper”, away from the universities which dominate now, and funded out-of-pocket by enthusiasts without PhDs.
The democratization of technologies will enable more people to do their own science: make hypotheses, design experiments, collect large data sets, and apply a mixture of reasoning and cloud computing to make discoveries. Perhaps we’ll see a multi-author journal article published written entirely by people without PhDs and no institutional affiliations. Although it sounds crazy, I’m not sure it is.
Today GTO pointed to a New York Times article about a few a high school students that were curious to know whether patrons of NYC restaurants and grocers were getting the seafood they ordered, or if instead, some foods were often substituted by others. So, they collected seafood specimens and sent them for genotyping. One quarter of the fish they collected were mislabeled. What these high school students were able to do is remarkable, and more projects like it will soon follow:
“What may be most impressive about the experiment is the ease with which the students accomplished it. Although the [genetic] testing technique is at the forefront of research, the fact that anyone can take advantage of it by sending samples off to a laboratory meant the kind of investigative tools once restricted to Ph.D.’s and crime labs can move into the hands of curious diners and amateur scientists everywhere.”
How far might the paradigm of DIYscience be extended? Could amateur biologists around the world organize around a grass-roots experiment, collect specimens, generate and share data, and make discoveries? What might that experiment look like?
There is a long history of amateur scientists making important discoveries. Before there were degree programs many investigators worked informally using private resources. Today, amateur astronomers have discovered comets, and amateur ornithologists collect important data on bird migration patterns. There is a potentially large sector of individuals who could contribute to research and development with the advantage of having total freedom to pick and choose their projects, unlike most professional scientists who work under often rigid constraints and often don’t have the liberty to pursue “high risk” projects.
With contract labs that do DNA sequencing for a modest fee as well as a plethora of other procedures, it is worthwhile for citizen scientists to concentrate on implementing ideas without paying for expensive setups. They might also partner with cooperating labs to perform hazardous and highly regulated procedures such as those involving radioisotopes, although in general one of the benefits of garage science is the search for innovative methods that are both cheap and relatively safe. For instance, biotech companies that sell expensive resins for plasmid DNA isolation actually base those resins on diatomaceous earth which is composed of silica skeletons of marine diatoms, a type of single-celled algae. This material is extremely inexpensive and works well enough without chemical modifications. Who knows, powdered glass may work just as well in the procedure. Someone should find out…
The majority of scientist in human history were non-credentialed; Professionalism is the aberration.
We were forced to centralize science in the last century. But that won’t scale into this one.
There’s just too much data out there. It needs to be converted into knowledge. That can’t be done by the few.
And just as we do in software, we need to open that data. And like human relationships, of course there are risks to opening up. But at some point the benefits will outweigh the risks.
I think DIYbio is an absolutely great idea for people interested in biology. It’s true that basic molecular biology methods are pretty simple and easily mastered. Finding shared spaces to conduct research presents more of an organizational challenge. Most important of all are simply good research ideas. Additionally, I think that investment of personal funds is unavoidable.
Enjoy the post. Maybe artificial plants source should assist someone there.