DIY science, policy, Brussels etc

Amateur science is really not a new idea, especially as science only became a profession in the 19th century. We have always tinkered about in our sheds, kitchens and workshops, systematically problem-solving and unpicking why the world is the way it is. The newest flavour of amateur science has developed post-internet with the rise of hacking, making and the availability of low-cost DIY electronics. As part of hacker and maker culture, DIY science is typically open, collaborative and community-based, bringing together different expertise and disciplines, to work on grassroots projects and address challenges relevant to the community in a scientific way. At its best DIY science represents genuine self-empowerment and civic resilience.

At the same time, recent years has seen a rapid rise in interest in “citizen science” from institutions, funding bodies and policymakers. This might sound like a great thing for DIY science… but “citizen science” is a slippery term interpreted quite differently by different stakeholders. The extent to which grassroots DIY science gets to be part of this citizen science boom and the nature of its involvement is still pretty fuzzy.

You can argue about whether DIY science isn’t by default something that one does privately as a personally-funded hobby. But I think there is often a point where hobby DIY science activities start to become relevant and valuable to wider society that makes them eligible for public funding — for example increased cultural awareness of contemporary science through bioart and biohacking, or in developing DIY tools to collect data for environmental activism. And I think we can all agree there is something rather wrong with the EU spending 100s of €millions on citizen science, often studying grassroots DIY science, with virtually none of it filtering down to practitioners.

However, in 2016 a H2020 project –Do it Together Science– was launched focussing on the ‘active involvement of citizens’ in citizen science, in this case specifically targeting topics of environmental sustainability and ‘biodesign’, sustaining ‘localised capacity building and in the long term the effects of these grassroots efforts channel into policy action at different levels’. Great!

Unfortunately the project got off to a rather shaky start by organising its first DIY science event, European Stakeholder Round Table on Citizen and DIY Science and Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI), in such a way that it rather alienated the DIY science community. In short, by scheduling the event during a working day very few DIY science practitioners were able to attend. There were two great and honest write-ups of that meeting from Egle Marija Ramanauskaite, the single invited representative of grassroots DIY science, and Aleks Berditchevskaia, DITOs project team member. Egle did her best under the circumstances to represent views of the wider DIY community by crowdsourcing comments on an etherpad before the event. This material, together with the outcome of discussions with those few who were able to make it on the day was destined to feed into a co-authored policy paper about supporting DIY science in Europe. Sadly we haven’t heard anything further about that in the 3 months since the event.

Interestingly my comments on that pad were picked up (typos and all, uncited but ok — I’m just happy they’re out there) for a report on the meeting for the Synenergene newsletter (Synenergene is an older FP7 project around synthetic biology and DIYbio). Assuming my suggestions resonated, I thought I would share them again here (somewhat edited this time — I originally wrote them rather late at night in a rush before the roundtable). Some initial thoughts on what I hope could be considered in developing policy to support DIY science in Europe:

Policy measures to support DIY Science

1. A way to connect our communities to academic science in a more substantial way (i.e. not just PhD students in their limited spare time). I would advocate for funding to support hackspaces, DIY bio labs, or science shops inside universities or (scientific/cultural) institutions that encourage serious collaboration between university/institution researchers at all career levels together with groups/communities from OUTSIDE of those universities/institutions. Good examples are the Imperial College Advanced Hackspace in London and the Manchester Metropolitan Digital Innovation Space. Both provide support to mixed internal/external communities. Taking full advantage of the potential of these kind of collaborations would make everyone feel like their time was well spent.

2. Funded positions for community managers (this work is time-consuming and usually very undervalued), either through grants or as staff positions, perhaps at the kind of hackerspaces mentioned above.

3. Instead of only funding new initiatives in a short-term way, offer sustainability funding for pre-existing successful volunteer-run projects that might otherwise die out — rather like funding basic infrastructure for DIY science communities (funding space, personnel, some basic overheads) — this gives such communities the chance to professionalise and start applying for further funding. For example, it is only through this kind of funding that publiclab has become so successful.

4. DIY science/maker communities have a lot more to offer science than just the development of DIY data collection tools for volunteer data collection. But IMO it’s still an open question — is citizen science ONLY about novel empirical research, or does it also include scientific knowledge transfer…? Either way, maker communities bridge the line between citizen science and knowledge transfer — perhaps it makes sense for the two strands to sometimes join forces in terms of policy-making and funding.

5. [this one less towards Brussels policy-makers and more towards future initiatives that intend to collaborate with DIY science communities] To ensure that DIY science (typically volunteer-run projects/communities, without the resources or capacity to afford conference registration fees or to attend weekday meetings) can expect the same level of representation and support as any other stakeholder in the citizen science movement, if it is claimed that they are part of that movement.

There is now a new initiative from Pieter van Boheemen of the Waag Society (a consortium member in DITOs) to draft a policy paper on DIYbio to take to Brussels. He’ll be accompanying the process with a series of youtube videos. For sure this could make his output more engaging and I applaud him for that. But I think we would all be grateful for a little more transparency and genuine inclusion from the DITOs project around policy papers. If members of the community are to invest their free time into these initiatives it’s important to know the context: How many policy papers are being written? What on? How will they be presented? Will community members have any control over how their contributions are used and what they’re used to lobby for? Our experience so far does little to engender trust.

And finally, if you are part of a DIY science community and want to connect with others to discuss these issues and more, come join us at the DIY science google group. We’re building a network for DIY science communities and projects to support and learn from each other.