Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Democratizing Scientific Research

Today, I came across a very interesting blog post by Christina Agapakis (via a GenomeWeb article). This post focuses on efforts to "democratize scientific research.” For the most part, the article discusses a post on another blog and the efforts by a group called DIYbio, which stands for “do-it-yourself biology.” She also emphasizes the need to make formal changes in the way institutions conduct scientific research, and I particularly liked some of her suggestions for improvement:

"What if there were more opportunities for high-paying technical jobs in science for people without advanced degrees? What if there were more biotech vocational programs to learn the skills you would need to work in these jobs? What if it were easier and cheaper for groups of scientists and engineers everywhere to turn ideas and hypotheses into technology and knowledge? What if there were real ways for knowledge to become power for that kid living in South Central LA?"

In regard to the issues brought up directly in her post, I think Christina is a little too harsh on DIYbio. I do agree that the organization's efforts are probably not sufficient to help intelligent individuals “[living] in a community plagued by violence and poverty” reach their full potential, and it is probably reasonable to assume that most of the participants are “white, middle class, and primarily male.” However, I think DIYbio positively contributes to the production of new ideas and products that would not otherwise be feasible. To be fair, Christina does say that DIYbio has helped promote “scientific participation and enthusiasm” and could be a useful model for developing programs for underprivileged individuals, but her opinions about DIYbio are mostly negative. She also claims that DIYbio perpetuates “the myth of the Victorian Gentleman Scientist,” who “[pursues] a 'pure' science not because of an interest in money and free of any state control but because of a deep curiosity with the power of the natural world.” I certainly agree that the Gentleman Scientist is an undesirable model for scientists that is unlikely to produce practical research and does not provide a reasonable venue for research for anyone without prior financial security. However, I honestly didn’t get that vibe from reading over the DIYbio website, although I should admit that my knowledge is limited because I hadn't heard of DIYbio before today.

In general, I am a big supporter of anything that removes politics from scientific research because I think personal and professional bias compromises the objective judgment that is so critical to good science. I think this requires fair assessment of scientific progress that emphasizes the impact of a specific result (and the effectiveness of the methods to achieve that result) and limits the role of authority as much as possible. For example, I think it would help if the peer-review process for scientific journals was a double blind process. Currently, the reviewers know the author names and institutional affiliations, but the authors do not usually know the identity of their reviewers. I know some exceptions to the latter case but not the former case (please correct my ignorance if you know of some examples). Of course, this would not be a perfect solution. Some reviewers may be able to recognize the work done by established scientists due to biological systems and methods employed in previous publications, and well-connected scientists will probably be friends with some reviewers and can give them a heads up that they have submitted an article for peer review. This is slightly tangential to the topic of DIYbio, but my ideas are relevant to the broad concept of "democratizing” scientific research by formal changes in institutional policies.

There is also a very interesting (and long) response to Christina’s post that does a good job discussing how “[it] is entirely possible to develop high level expertise outside of the formal system” and also noting that certain avenues of research (like “programming and electronics’) are much more feasible for the everyday scientist than research in biology or chemistry. Materials for biological research can be harder to acquire and more prone to regulation. For certain types of biological research, such as biomedical research, it is also relatively difficult to bring therapeutics to the market without a formal research position, in part due to the need to run clinical trails and gain FDA approval. The author of the comment specifically mentions over-regulation. I agree that some regulation is definitely unnecessary and hinders scientific progress (for example, I personally think the FDA should only limit the use of drugs due to toxicity without also considering effectiveness, and instead allow physicians to decide on the own if the treatment is effective and superior to alternative methods), but I do think that there is some rationale for not allowing everyone access to stuff like anthrax.

In short, I think informal biology research is a good thing that can benefit society (as acknowledged in Christina’s concluding paragraph), and I also think it would also benefit society to employ formal institutional changes to encourage individuals from varied backgrounds to conduct scientific research.


  1. Here is a Discover article that includes a list of "10 Amateur Scientists Who Might Cure Cancer—From Their Basements"

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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