It’s always good to have a heart-warming story to start the year off. What made this a particularly good start for me in 2009 was the fact that the story appeared in New Scientist. In their opening issue on 3rd January, they tell the story of the “Rise of the garage genome hackers”. It’s all about the research on genetic modification that is going on in sheds, garages and bedroom cupboards around the world. It’s is a largely unreported phenomenon, but signals a growing trend which is the return of the scientific amateur or hobbyist.
“Amateur” Science is a long-standing tradition that has been devalued over the years by the rise of corporate science and research, alongside a PR machine that suggests that no significant advance will ever be achieved without multi-million dollar budgets and a building full of white-coated researchers. It’s an image that Science has allowed Hollywood to project and reinforce, along with the stereotype of the lone inventor as mad scientist.
Why this has happened is something of a puzzle. If you ask the average man or woman in the street to name the three greatest scientists of all time, the winners would probably be Newton, Einstein and Darwin. At the point that they were working on their greatest discoveries each one of them would have fitted the description of amateur scientist, beavering away on their own theories which generally went against the grain of the establishment. Over the centuries much of accepted scientific wisdom in every discipline has emerged in this way from individuals working alone.
Today, rather than being celebrated, it’s too often seen as strange or even dangerous, with the paranoid elements in politics and the media ranting about the dangers of home scientists creating superbugs or turning into terrorists. Like the Health and Safety lobby they see science as something to be feared, rather than enjoyed. What is really dangerous is that if we turn Science into the corporate pursuit that they desire, only to be practised behind closed doors, we not only remove it from scrutiny, but deny the fun in it, which in turn means fewer children will enjoy it and see it as a worthwhile career.
Over the coming decade the importance of the home scientist is likely to grow. As well as groups like the one in the New Scientist article (see their website at www.diybio.org), the new breed of citizen scientist is being increasingly appreciated by progressive companies. More and more companies are realising that their key skill is in managing the supply chain – that is having the knowledge and infrastructure to manufacture and sell in high volume. They see real value in utilising external design skills to supplement their internal research and development. This has led to the rise of internet communities like innocentive.com or ninesigma.com, where individuals can trade their expertise. It’s allowing a growing number of scientists and inventors to sell their skills to solve big company problems. For more on that, delve into the books on shared development and ideagoras – We Are Smarter Than Me, Wikinomics and We-think. Shared development is already changing the way progressive companies compete. You’ll be hearing more about it from me and others in the future.
The most important point about this new generation of hobby scientists is that it promises to return the focus of science to the community. In healthcare I see more and more complex equipment being designed to mend people rather than to preserve the quality of life, largely because big companies in this area have lost touch with the patients. Community science, practised by groups of involved individuals can help to redress that.
Whilst politicians may carp about home experimenters who spend their time developing things such as glow-in-the-dark yoghurt as “Frankenstein Science” and “macabre”, society should rejoice in the fact that it’s letting scientists get closer to what is needed and what is fun. There’s nothing like getting you hands into science to generate a life-long enjoyment of it. Long may the trend continue and prosper.