Citizen Science: biohacking its way into the mainstream

Science. A subject which was once dominated by middle class white men. Well, sort of, if you discredit the likes of influential females such as Rosalind Franklin and Marie Curie. Regardless, to be a part of that world you needed to be a “scientist”. Today, “proper” scientists have PhD’s, at the very least, most have degrees. However, that is all changing. Maybe not in the mainstream sense but across the globe citizen science or biohacking is putting science in the front rooms of the public.

Note: there are a couple of meanings associated to the word biohacking. The one I’m referring to is the do-it-yourself biology type. NOT the grinder or body modification movement.

“If you open up the science and allow diverse groups to participate, it could really stimulate innovation” says Ellen Jorgensen, a molecular biologist. Over the past decade the movement has grown from a hobby demonstrating basic experiments to an international community. Emerging at a time where in the UK especially, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) has had both an increase in interest and investment within the education system. Biohacking could therefore be an ideal opportunity for school students to gain essential laboratory experience. Take for example, Genspace (Jorgensen’s own biohacking lab), which has helped to meet the needs of local high school children in New York where funding for school science has been limited. A grassroots approach like this could open up a whole new world of science beyond the classroom atmosphere. Studies such as Public Attitudes to Science (2014) have highlighted a trend where the public feel they need to know more about science in their daily lives and the PAS, (2014) saw 69% of participant’s felt scientists should pay more attention to the thoughts of ordinary people. In theory, biohacking epitomises this notion, enabling science and its technology to be accessible for just about anybody regardless of age, knowledge and socio-economic background.

Biohack spaces have popped up across the globe. The London Biohackspace is a microbiology and molecular biology lab run by the community. Their website states its purpose “is to provide access to lab equipment and bench space, for use in a safe manner, for individual or collaborative projects.” The concept of biohacking has been around for centuries albeit limited to “professional” scientists. Human beings have been tinkering with science for decades but biohacking is taking this idea from behind the closed doors of a scientist’s lab into the community of amateur biologists. Probably, the most positive thing to come out of this movement is its ability to empower those who take part all the while bringing about a democracy within the sector. Slowly, the relationship between science and the public appears to be becoming symbiotic. A cultural shift which is being fueled by projects such as those within the biohacking community, opening new opportunities for the creative and the curious.

Citizen science doesn’t have to be confined to the lab either. More and more scientific institutions are seeing the benefits of involving the public in their projects. Take for example The Great Brain Experiment, an app launched by The Wellcome Trust, which tests memory, impulsivity, attention and decision making through different games played by those who download the app. Scientists then look at the results and data collected from the games to look at the science behind the brain in everyday life. This form of scientific participation is proving to be popular too, over 32 000 people have downloaded and played the app. Elsewhere, those who feel a bit more hands on have enriched the world of science and indeed everyday life with their discoveries and inventions. One of the big projects to emerge from citizen science is the OpenPCR Machine. Generally, PCR (Polymerase chain reaction) machines are expensive bits of kit which amplifies a copy or a few copies of a segment of DNA. An application which is widely used within biology and healthcare. Thus, for a fraction of the price the OpenPCR machine could potentially mean the birth of home genomics. If you read my last post you may understand how important this could be for healthcare.

The important thing to take away here is we are not only being educated and engaged by science but bigger institutions are coming around to the benefits of having the general public involved who may not exclusively have a scientific background. There are some amazing results emerging from this movement. I posted a few weeks ago about kids making slime proving biohacking is starting at grassroots level. Why not find a biohack space near you and give it a go?


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