On Nov 17 2020, the journal Nature published a feature about how “How DIY technologies are democratizing science” by Sandeep Ravindran.
- “The idea that scientists build their own equipment is as old as science,” (Tom Baden) a reminder that the trend itself is not new, scientists have been building their own equipment for centuries, often out of necessity, as it doesn’t exist yet.
- DIY is time consuming, labor-intensive, for less reliable results and no tech support. Some people like DIY for its own sake, others use it primarily for cost savings.
- When you can get past the downside, DIY can transform a whole field by expanding the reach of a technology to countries that have more limited research budgets. The net effect is accelerating science by democratizing it, on a worldwide scale.
- DIY science equipment also has an impact on education in lower income countries, by putting otherwise unaffordable equipment in the hands of students.
- “Hardware built from open-source designs generally costs just 1–10% of the price of commercial counterparts” (Joshua Pearce, author of Open-source lab).
- DIY hardware is customizable in ways commercial products rarely are. And the lack of tech support is compensated by knowledge for repairing devices acquired when you build them yourself.
- In some cases, DIY can apply to reagents as well, such as enzymes produced in open-source bioreactors, that can be used in various applications, including diagnostics.
- 3D printing is a core technology that empowers scientific instrumentation DIY, especially the more affordable desktop FDM printers.
- DIY combines well with recycling older lab equipment.
Altogether the article is well researched and covers a range of interesting projects and people. In fact, several of the covered projects have been featured on our Resources page since last summer. Below we dive a little bit deeper into 4 topics.
Untapped potential – When considering the impact of DIY, it is mainly about the distribution of properly documented, easily replicable, open hardware (see here for pointers on how to do that). There is a lot more DIY hardware getting made in labs that never gets disseminated, because it is time-consuming. The visibility brought about by Nature articles like this one, a more organized community (e.g. GOSH) and publication venues (e.g. Journal of Open Hardware, HardwareX) all contribute to making DIY dissemination more impactful and rewarding.
Blind spot – A surprising omission, in our view, is Open Ephys, one of the most impactful projects we know of. By developing an open-source data acquisition board for electrophysiology, they cut the commercial price of such devices by at least a factor 10 (they offer the option to get it fully assembled), and double that if you source the components and assemble them yourself. One potential explanation for the omission is that Open Ephys doesn’t really take part in the larger open hardware community, and is therefore not known by open hardware advocates in other research fields.
Let us know what you think below in the comment section.