The Tumbling Walls of Formal Science

Science is not really an institution per se. It is a state of mind - a willingness to follow the scientific method and the willingness to put in time on a particular job that needs doing. That science is currently and has been an institution for most of the later 20th century is something of an aberration when considered against the broader scope of history. Science has far more often been a matter of folk with the right mindset stepping in to learn what they needed and make progress as they could. Most blurred the line between engineer and scientist - cheerfully mixing discovery through the scientific method with implementation that worked around gaps in knowledge within their field.

As the h+ summit this next weekend puts it, these people were citizen scientists. Their time is coming again, arriving alongside the age of garage biotechnology:

For my money, the most interesting part of this process is the enabling effects of cheap computing power - and the tools to take advantage of it - on people who are not professional researchers. To put it another way, the line between researcher and nonresearcher will become very blurred, just as the line between programmer and nonprogrammer is today. The present open source software development community contains diverse individuals, small teams, academic, non-academic, corporate and non-corporate groups producing solutions for specific problems that bother them or inspire them. In the future, equally diverse organizations will form and collaborate to produce solutions for health and longevity using open biotechnology yet to come.

At the end of July, the Open Science Summit will be held in Berkeley, California:

Ready for a rapid, radical reboot of the global innovation system for a truly free and open 21st century knowledge economy? Join us at the first Open Science Summit, an attempt to gather all stakeholders who want to liberate our scientific and technological commons and enable an new era of decentralized, distributed innovation to solve humanity’s greatest challenges.

The host is an energetic fellow in the growing open biotechnology community, as illustrated by this recent article from h+ magazine:

A Citizen-Scientist is anyone who uses the scientific method to investigate themselves or their environment to answer a particular question or satisfy their curiosity. Several exemplary historical citizen scientists come to mind. Thomas Jefferson is the archetype of the gentleman scholar. Benjamin Franklin invented bifocals when he got tired of switching between two pairs of glasses and of course, famously flew a kite in a lightning storm to discover the principles of electricity. Edward Jenner discovered inoculation and performed the first vaccination against smallpox.


I am CEO of Lava-Amp, a company I co-founded with Venezuelan computational biologist Guido Nunez to develop extremely low-cost DNA amplification technology. PCR, which Lava-Amp performs, is the fundamental technique of molecular biology. Our device brings the cost of the hardware down from thousands of dollars, to hundreds, enabling portable DNA testing in the field, and also providing an affordable system for garage bio-hackers and amateur biologists learning the basics. ... am also convening the first Open Science Summit, July 29-31st at Berkeley. Finally, I am co-founder of BioCurious the first Bay Area community lab for citizen science and "biohacking." The DIY biology movement has been gaining ground for the last two years with many groups meeting informally. However, we still lack infrastructure and access to equipment that is beyond the budget of a garage hobbyist. To remedy this, and also assuage some of the concerns with garage biohacking, we’ve pooled resources and gathered a group of Bay Area activists to found a lab for non-institutional science.

If you're in that part of the world and have an interest, note that cancer immunotherapy nonprofit Livly also rents out lab space.

But why should we folk interested in engineered longevity spend much - or any - time following or helping support the open biotechnology movement? I think that the most obvious reason stems from the analogy to the open source software development movement I made at the head of this post. If you look at the software infrastructure of the present day internet, vast swathes of it are open source, the quality of its software only made possible by the gift economy that takes shape in unfettered collaborative marketplaces of this nature. A very large fraction of all new innovation on the web now builds on top of open source infrastructure, for example.

Similarly, we can envisage the future of biotechnology bolstered greatly by open development and sharing of information: in an environment where hundreds or thousands of people can put in time on one problem, progress happens rapidly, and blocking problems quickly evaporate. The tools used to build solutions will be open source, and thus of excellent quality and low cost, just like the infrastructure for software development today.

Low cost, high quality tools are the necessary precursors for a large community of skilled amateurs to arise in any field. It happened for software development, and we all benefit greatly from the results of that process. I would like to see it happen in the life sciences as well, because the only thing better than thousands of people advocating for engineered longevity is thousands of advocates who can also step in, do the work, and help to get the job done. Not all biotechnology is rocket science: a great many useful and necessary tasks in any project can be accomplished by undergraduate students - or anyone who has put in a few months of evening reading and practice.

In short, open science and garage biotechnology will lead to faster progress - and we all want to see that happen.


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