The loss of science hackers?

Chris Brooker
April 3, 2010

(Image from xkcd)

Some of you may or may not know but I have a deep passion for science. So deep in fact that my pleasure reading is almost entirely science related books, journals, paper and studies. With my favourite subjects being;

1) The brain (human mostly) architecturally, chemically, wiring, basically the hardware level.
2) How the mind works, the psychology, human behavior and perception.
3) Quantum Mechanics
4) Theoretical Particle Physics
5) Genetics and Epigenetics

It’s pretty diverse set of subjects that most people probably don’t think much about. The only problem? I’m a Software Engineer, not a “Scientist”. I don’t a have degree in Physics nor do I have a PHD. So basically I’m not permitted to make any contributions to modern science.

Let me explain;

In the past as humans have evolved, science has been something that’s been in reach of pretty much anyone who has had the interest. You could easily scrounge together some simple supplies, test theories through experimentation and have breakthroughs that greatly impact scientific innovation. The barrier to entry was low and anyone could participate. Where would we be without the garage inventers and tinkers?

Modern science it seems, at least as an outsider looking in, is vastly different. It’s something only the few are allowed to participate in and is, at this point, almost run as a corporation. Doing everything you can to get and keep the most grants. A place where only safe science is rewarded.

Now we get to the fundamental problem. The barrier to entry to modern science is too high. The equipment necessary to come to any scientific breakthroughs in the modern world is prohibitally expensive. Only large companies and universities can afford it. Let’s say for example in my spare time, I wanted to work on the mysteries of the brain or recreate the results of an experiment I read in a paper. I can’t, not because I’m incapable, but because I don’t have access to say an fMRI machine nor could I ever afford one. I can’t afford a genetic sequencer, a mass spectrometer, a scanning electron microscope, a particle accelerator, etc, etc. There is just too much ridiculously expensive equipment that’s required to contribute anything groundbreaking to modern science.

With the cost so high the only option we have available is to go to university get a degree in a single field, then a PHD, but now you’ve made a whole career out of it and you’re stuck, essentially in the same subject. But you will be granted magical access to the machines. Now you can start working on hard problems. Oh wait, not really, you need to get a grant, and to get it you’ll probably be stuck doing trials for a pharmaceutical company looking to increase profit margins. (Just an example). In this kind of word safe science is rewarded and innovation is a distant second. There’s no predictable profit in that. Not to mention the quotas on papers, etc. It becomes a career and not a passion!

Now I’m not saying all scientists are like this. Some are doing amazing work that blows my mind. You guys are incredible! And there are a few garage tinkers and science hackers out there working on hard problems like nuclear fusion but the vast majority could do so much more with access to the right equipment.

I had the idea a while ago where I wanted to create a fully stocked lab, equipment, supplies, machines (mass spec, fMRIs, EEGs, etc) and rent lab time by the hour. Each new member would have to go through a short orientation on each machine to ensure they knew how to use it correctly. But at least the general public could have access to the equipment and supplies that today is only available to the select few. Kind of the way people can rent time at a garage to work on their cars with all the tools available. We need to lower the cost of entry, real ground breaking science is now out of reach for most people. It’s sad.

Scientists, hackers, people with a passion for science and a desire to contribute who didn’t follow the academic channel, what do you think? Do you see what I’m saying? Let’s chat.

And if you have access to equipment and lab space and are looking for something to do, I have ideas and questions that could use some experimentation.

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