A new era for DIY science

Lately DIY science seems to be everywhere. A few weeks ago Nature Biotechnology published an article on the DIYbio movement, while Technology Review wrote about how to take pictures of the earth from space for $150. And don’t forget the rise of O’Reilly’s Make Magazine. Although people have been programming (and building!) computers at home for decades, we’re only beginning to explore how the widespread availability of technology could enableparticipatory science outside the traditional lab.

Why academia goes DIY While most of the media coverage on DIY science has focused on amateurs, there’s actually a lot of DIY-style science happening in academic labs. Why would “real” researchers go the DIY route? When you’re trying to develop a novel technology, in some sense everything you do is DIY, since you can’t buy the finished product off the shelf. Of course, academic labs usually have access to expensive equipment, machine shops or cleanrooms that make it easier to build custom devices from scratch. Even so, it’s common for academic labs to use “quick-and-dirty” methods to save money and time. Such enabling methods can sometimes constitute an innovation on their own — look no further than Michelle Khine’s Shrinky Dink microfluidic patterning.

Cheap, readily-available DIY-style methods can also facilitate the creation of low-cost technologies for the developing world. For example, both George Whitesides and Paul Yager have pointed out the potential power of the smartphone as a part of low-cost diagnostic measurement and communication systems.

What will be the products of the new DIY science?

What motivates people to pursue DIY science and technology in their homes? Is the computer science field a valid model for what might happen as other types of technology become more accessible? The word “biohacker” has already crossed over — will a biohacker culture emerge, and how might it affect mainstream science and technology development? I can’t wait to see what happens with the DIYbio movement — meanwhile I’ll be thinking about DIY microfluidics.

For more on DIY science and technology:

  • Eric Paulos’s work on the rise of the expert amateur

  • The DIYbio organization

  • Thoughtful post by Andrew Maynard of 2020science discussing the ethics of synthetic biology and biohackers

  • Hugh Rienhoff sequenced his daughter’s DNA: story from Wired

  • www.evilmadscientist.com has developed such gems as the Bristlebot, a DIY robot you can make in 5 minutes with $3 worth of parts