How do we make DIYBio sustainable?

13 December 2012 by Rayna Stamboliyska, posted in citizen science

At December 13th's SoNYC discussion, hosted by Nature Publishing Group (NPG), a panel will discuss the growth of DIY science, describing some of the opportunities it presents and looking towards the future. The conversation will cover the challenges faced by DIY science enthusiasts, such as safety and accurate data collection, as well as the ways to deal with these concerns within an online world of support. In the build up to this event, the folks at NPG are publishing a mini-series of guest posts from DIY science tinkerers, amateur astronomers, enablers, as well as educators interested in this field. Follow the online chatter using the #DIYSci hashtag and feel free to share your own experiences.

This post is cross-posted on the SpotOn blog.

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Funding is a serious issue in the “garage biology,” biohacking and DIYBio communities. This is largely the result of them being made up of a small number of disparate groups or individuals. And while homebrew or second-hand lab gear can be relatively cheap, the cost of regularly used chemical reagents, such as enzymes (vital for ubiquitous processes such as PCR) is quite expensive.

Funding strategies: how sustainable are they?

Many DIYBio enthusiasts fund themselves from regular membership fees, or voluntary pledges within the group. Some biohacking groups associated with larger hacker spaces often benefit from shared bills among the wider hackspace membership. More established biohacking groups, such as the Bay Area’s BioCurious, are fairly well-supported because they command relatively high membership fees (>$100/month) - probably because highly-paid professionals use the space for their hobby. Some hacker spaces, such as NYC’s GenSpace, make money by charging for lessons and workshops. While Biocurious and GenSpace both work towards the DIYBio community’s aim to educate the public, these different approaches raise the issue of membership fees vs. funding via lessons and workshops.

BioCurious is a great place for anyone with a background in molecular biology to dabble in the science but beginners may struggle to get the hang of Taq polymerases and restriction enzymes. Conscious of this drawback, the BioCurious folks have started organizing classes for the general public. In contrast, GenSpace’s main goal since the beginning has been “promoting citizen science and access to biotechnology. Putting different approaches to one side, the question remains of how sustainable is funding through educational and outreach activities. How broad is the public appetite for any of these?

Crowdfunding endeavours through dedicated web platforms such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo are also possible funding routes. An amazing project such as OpenPCR was funded through Kickstarter. But, as MAKE’s David Lang points it out, running a crowdfunding campaign to kit up your home lab may pretty often be a tough experience. Encouragingly, recent changes in legislation, namely the US Jobs Act and Italy’s Crowdfunding Exemption, help rekindle the crowdfunding idea in a rather interesting way. Thanks to the Jobs Act, “a new era of crowdfunding” may very well be unfolding as “the law will hopefully make it much easier and cheaper for small ventures to get funding-for-equity from the crowd.”

Of course anyone can look to donations. These may, however, be volatile and are not a sustainable type of funding. Then there are grants. The Awesome Foundation, for instance, “provides grants with no strings attached and claims no ownership over the projects it supports. It is, in the words of one of our trustees, a micro-genius grant for flashes of micro-brilliance.” In the UK, Wellcome Trust provided funding to Manchester’s MadLab, perhaps because of its academic backing, but grants are scarce.

Thanks to the recent formation of DIYBio Europe, different groups have been talking of getting together and applying to the European Commission (EC) for grants. Specific grants within the EC do not seem to exist yet though. Also fishing for funds this way could be tricky in terms of deciding how to distribute EU funds within the network.

Closing openness?

There may also be further tensions arising from accepting grants. Some biohacking groups are wary of the restrictions that may come with accepting a grant, such as possibly having to focus their work in predefined directions. Many others shudder at the thought of becoming more like a university PI who, they perceive, spends more time writing grant proposals and politicking than doing actual science. These, some would argue, are exactly the problems academia has faced, with chasing grants at the expense of open-ended research goals.

Another possible route for funding biohacking is through the creation of commercially-viable projects. Some DIYBio groups have already started to form private companies and are going through the process of patenting some of their products. Such an approach may create tensions as many biohackers see it in total contradiction of the movement’s goals.

In this context, the FBI-DIYBio synergy cannot be ignored. The FBI has organized regular meetings, convening an impressive number of DIYBio enthusiasts at this year’s meeting. As Michael Scroggins, a PhD working on the validity of ‘hackerspaces as educational Institutions’, points out, “paradoxically, and this says something about the uncomfortable nature of policing in the current clime, by hosting this conference over the last three years and expanding the list of invitees each year, the FBI has become one of the most important institutions in the global spread of DIYBio.”

Such a deep-pocket interest from the FBI is reminiscent of the engaging welcome the US Department of Defence R&D branch, DARPA, provided the synthetic biology community. Many people, not only from the DIYBio community but also from the bioengineering field at large, seem quite concerned with military money, and accepting DoD grants to “green our explosives.”
All these considerations prompt the question of how to draw the line which separates appropriate uses of biotech from inappropriate. Knowledgeable engagement, vigilance and dialogue are required by each one of us to set this line and recognize research that crosses it.

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Joel Winston also contributed to this post.

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