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DIYbio and the "MAN"

November 5, 2010


Dr. Todd Kuiken is a research associate for the Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is collaborating with on a project to ensure safety within the rapidly expanding community of amateur biologists.

If the “MAN” was just one man, dealing with new and exciting movements such as DIYbio would be rather easy. Unfortunately the “MAN” consists of numerous federal agencies ranging from the FBI to the EPA, all with different jurisdictions and oversight concerns. Add to that state and local agencies, neighborhood associations and your curious neighbor looking over the fence and the complexity of engaging with all of these groups becomes clear. The DIYbio community needs to take these agencies concerns seriously, as I think we are doing, and turn them into excitement over this new field of biology and the larger movement of citizen science as a whole.

As I began talking about DIYbio with various agencies a theme began to emerge amongst those who were tasked with “oversight”, for lack of a better word, of DIYbio. There was a general excitement about the community and the conversation frequently turned to “remember when science was fun”. While these various agencies have legitimate concerns surrounding the DIYbio movement, the conversations thus far have been positive and seem to be more about helping the movement move forward safely while encouraging more people to get “excited” about science again. By no means do I think this will be an easy task, but an exciting one as we begin to engage the larger public and move deeper into the caverns of regulations, local ordinances and address people’s fears and concerns about moving into the realm of citizen science. I believe strongly that if we follow three simple principles we can calm these fears and produce an environment where the DIYbio community can flourish and the larger citizen science movement can grow.

1. Turn concern into excitement
2. Make science fun again
3. If we engage them they will get it

I recently finished reading “The Radioactive Boy Scout” by Ken Silverstein, which describes the true story of a young man named David who over the course of his childhood became fascinated with DIYchemistry and by the time he graduated high school had designed and built a small nuclear reactor in his backyard (with a little help from a book published in 1960 called “The Golden Book of Chemistry”, long out of print and probably for good reason, but in short, has some pretty amazing experiments designed for the DIYer, including how to make chloroform!). In the end the EPA arrived, tore down his makeshift lab and turned his family’s suburban Detroit backyard into a Superfund site. This true story is an excellent example of how curiosity and people’s desire to explore science can both lead to pretty amazing accomplishments, from a technical standpoint, but can also carry with it serious safety concerns and potential over reaction by the federal government. I plan on writing future posts describing the significance of this story and how it relates to the DIYbio movement and the lessons we can take from it in order to better engage with the “MAN”.


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  1. November 5, 2010

    The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments is an awesome book. I printed out a copy and hid it in a closet for my daughter to find when she’s old enough.

    Chloroform is just one one of the cool (and potentially dangerous) recipes in the book. Later on, you make chlorine gas, which it explains was used as a chemical weapon in World War I.

    • November 7, 2010

      Thanks for sharing the pdf, the illustrations in the book are phenomenal!

  2. November 7, 2010

    Duran Duran made a song about David called “Playing with Uranium”:

    Mugshot from when David was arrested for stealing more smoke detectors, more than 10 years after his backyard was turned into a superfund site (Is that radiation poisoning or some other illness?):,2933,299362,00.html

  3. January 23, 2011

    I am more than 50 years old but ‘The Golden Book of Chemistry’ still has a special place on my bookshelf…right next to CL Stong’s ‘The Amateur Scientist’.

  4. Tom #
    March 5, 2012

    Anybody read about this kid yet? They mention the other kid David too:

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