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Democratizing Science: How New Services Enable Citizen Discovery, Research, And Innovation

Photo courtesy of the University of Michigan via Flickr. 

There was once a day when only scientists and academics had access to the tools, information, and equipment needed for complex experiments and innovation.

For better or for worse, that time has come to an end.

Technology and startup culture is such that new, growing companies and services outside the realm of big institutions are finding cheap and simple ways to let the everyday person take up an active role in science, credentials be damned.

Here are some pertinent examples of modern startups or services that are shifting dynamics in the world of science.

Synthetic biology: GMO plants for all

The Glowing Plant Project

The Kickstarter project promising glowing plants to its backers stirred up a lot of controversy for allowing the unregulated handling of GMOs by untrained civilians. Now by pre-order anyone can plant, grow, and edit the seeds of their own fluorescent shrub.

Revolution Bio

This seporate plant-based synthetic biology startup aims to sow the seed of beauty by sharing color-changing flowers with florists, gardeners, and boyfriends that have really screwed up.

Both companies are democratizing the handling of genetically modified organisms for vanity purposes, something never done before.

Democratizing creation

Cambrian Genomics

Democratization is taken to a whole new level with startup Cambrian Genomics, a company that wants to let its customers design and create their own new life forms without regulation.

The synthetic biology company essentially allows its customers to design DNA code, which the startup will print onto DNA strands — shipped in powder form — for the customer to insert into an organism’s cells for themselves.

Clients are limited to other companies with similar goals at the moment, so you can rest easy in the fact that no one in your neighborhood will be printing Ebola through their services.

Genspace, NYC

Other organizations, such as Genspace in Brooklyn, NY, provide community biolabs through which members can (safely) access to the lab equipment necessary for projects in the fields of molecular and synthetic biology. It’s a simple as joining, learning, and experimenting for a reasonable monthly fee.

Citizen scientists sequencing bacteria

uBiome

The company uBiome has a unique mission: to give its users the opportunity to sequence and study their microbiomes.

Users are sent a kit through which they can submit a bacteria sample and send it in for testing, along with a survey on lifestyle and health. Once sequenced, uBiome compiles your results for you online so you can experiment by comparing your bacteria to that of other groups, like heavy drinkers, vegetarians, smokers, etc.

Users can also study how their microbiomes change over time, and explore how their lifestyle relates to bacteria and health.

Democratizing research: biodiversity, space, and beyond

The research end of science is becoming increasingly open to the public as well, with science projects crowdsourcing research such as mapping the aftermath of disaster, or mapping the biodiversity of State Parks and ocean life.

Synbiota

One notable startup that is opening research to the public is called Synbiota, a platform that allows people from all walks of life to collaborate online in a space for open source biotech innovations.

Synbiota allows its users access to hundreds of ongoing projects and sophisticated research, which they augment and annotate collectively. Members can crowdsource knowledge, share new discoveries, and even access and edit DNA.

But if you think neophyte involvement in science was limited to a cellular level, or even an earthly one, you’d be wrong:

  • The startup Planet Lab is democratizing space by providing cheap access to satellite imagery to clients
  • Berkeley’s SETI software lets users help find extraterrestrial life
  • Other projects enlist volunteer help in mapping the galaxy and finding exoplanets.

Want to get started?

Aside from the many startups and services mentioned, a great resource for getting involved in science projects is the website Zooniverse, maintained and developed by the Citizen Science Alliance.

Through this database, users can find projects in the fields of space, climate, humanities, nature, biology, and physics, and dive right in to scientific discovery. Bon Voyage!

We measure success by the understanding we deliver. If you could express it as a percentage, how much fresh understanding did we provide?
Jennifer Markert