When is a scientist not a scientist?
If there was a field guide to professions, the entry for scientists might describe a university lab filled with expensive equipment as the preferred habitat. It might note that typical scientist behavior includes applying for grants, publishing papers, and filing patents. But what if you observed a flock of people doing science who satisfied none of these criteria — would you still identify them as scientists? At the Hackuarium space in the greater Lausanne area of Switzerland, they are known as biohackers, and they are changing the definition of science itself.
To my uninitiated ears, the word “biohacker” evoked the darker side of information technology the first time I heard it: the exploitation of digital weakness (possibly using pipettes?) In fact, biohackers have taken the ingenuity and rebellion of computer hacking and co-opted them into a collaborative new approach to biology, in which existing tools and ideas are taken apart and built back up into something even better. Now a worldwide phenomenon, biohacking includes the practice of “do-it-yourself biology” or DIYbio, which Alessandro Delfanti describes in his book, Biohackers. The politics of open science as the process of “using open access tools and claiming independence from both academic and corporate institutions.”
When is a laboratory not a laboratory?
Hackuarium is located on the second floor of the UniverCité facility in Renens. The bright, 1,000 square-meter open space is filled with varied pieces of equipment — everything from beakers, petri dishes and chemical hoods to wood and metal working machinery. Some are in active use, and others are still wrapped in plastic. Hackuarium makes use of upcycling, or the process of converting discarded equipment into new tools and materials. Thus, while most of the warehouse-like space is devoted to conducting experiments and wrangling results, one large room hosts a ‘maker-space’ where participants design, produce and improvise the equipment they need to do their work.
The atmosphere is simultaneously intense and laid back, with animated discussion and concentration over projects taking place against a backdrop of half-assembled equipment and a laden snack table. Currently, Hackuarium is populated by about 25 biohackers who work according to the demands of their own projects and schedules. Each Wednesday they converge for an #OpenHackuarium, where existing projects are discussed and new ones are introduced. There are currently six projects floating around the Hackuarium on topics ranging from soil remediation to bioluminescence. Now in an open “brainstorming” phase, participants will begin experimenting and deploying selected projects beginning on October 1.
When is science not science?
The world of biohacking can be confusing to a newcomer, mainly because it draws on a host of alternative movements — open access, co-working and third spaces — that challenge or reject the mainstream way of working and producing results. Because it is predicated on concepts of open source innovation and independence from formal institutions, biohacking may at first appear to be a conscious rejection of the process of modern science, which is increasingly shaped by competition and intellectual property rights. But in his comprehensive overview of the movement, Delfanti argues that biohacking arose from a natural synergy between biology and computing. As Hackuarium co-founder Luc Henry and co-author Stefano Golinelli wrote in a recent Science review of Delfanti’s book:
“The changes [Delfanti] discusses are actually a complex pollination of the life sciences by information technologies, emerging from what he calls a “cultural feedback.” In other words, biohackers’ openness is much more than freely sharing information to challenge the tragedy of the anticommons induced by the increasing scope of intellectual property rights.”
Bruno Strasser, one of the developers of the University of Geneva’s new Bioscope project, expresses a similar sentiment: “It’s more about choosing meaningful interdependencies and partnerships to make an impact than about radical independence,” he says. A visitor to an #OpenHackuarium session can see these interdependencies forming in real time as new visitors drop by to share their interests and ideas. In addition to developing projects and experiments, Hackuarium regularly hosts speakers from other biohacking projects in Europe and beyond. The regularity of these speaking events is a testament to how popular and widespread the biohacking movement has become in recent years.
Demystify, Inspire, Innovate
It would be naïve to ask—as I did, the first time I heard about Hackuarium—“It sounds like fun, but who’s going to use a big room full of lab equipment without a grant?” As it turns out, the answer is “lots of people,” and the sheer enthusiasm with which more and more newcomers join Hackuarium each week speaks to a fierce social undercurrent that is bubbling to the surface. People — scientists, artists, hackers, makers, and doers — are thirsty for big, open spaces where they can work collaboratively. Information technology has created the epistemological framework for these spaces, and social media is the main force connecting them. The broader scientific and social outcome of biohackerspaces is still an open question, but the mixing of minds in such an environment seems likely to produce some highly interesting results.