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Science hacks chip away at the old barriers to entry

Access to data and tools is putting scientific exploration into anyone's hands.

drawings_of_scientists.jpgStereotypes of what scientists do, how they act, what they look like persist as Eri Gentry noted in her keynote at last week’s OSCON. To illustrate, Gentry pointing to the “before” and “after” pictures drawn by seventh-grade visitors to Fermilab. Hopefully, the notion of a quiet (or mad) scientist, isolated in the lab, will soon be uncommon as citizen and DIY science projects like BioCurious take shape.

In her keynote, Gentry described what it was like to be a non-scientist doing science. She also addressed the struggles that many scientists, regardless of background, face: a lack of access to the tools they need for research. Lab space is often restricted to universities or big corporations, and lab rentals, when available, can be exorbitant. But following a successful Kickstarter campaign, BioCurious will provide a collaborative lab space for biotech at a much lower rate.

The availability of an affordable and accessible space is one thing; the availability of tools is another. As Gentry highlighted, with a combination of open source software and off-the-shelf parts, it’s also possible to build lab equipment that costs far less: a $125 DIY clean bench (regular price $12,000), a $55 Dremel-based centrifuge (compared to a $500 centrifuge).

But hacking science isn’t just about “making things,” as Spacehack’s Ariel Waldman argued in her OSCON keynote. It’s about making “disruptively accessible things.” In her talk, Waldman talked about some of the ways in which that accessibility is occurring in space exploration. It isn’t as simple as opening up the massive datasets we have from satellites and space missions — although that’s part of it. It’s about making sure that data isn’t “buried deep within a government website” or locked in an unintelligible interface or format. And it’s about making sure that people can actively contribute and that when they do, they receive credit for their work.

As Gentry described it in her talk at OSCON, these open science efforts are done “out of necessity and out of passion.” Opening access to data, equipment and lab space this way puts science in the hands of makers, creators, developers, scientists, citizens — anyone. And this in turn will hopefully spur more innovation and discovery.

Strata Conference New York 2011, being held Sept. 22-23, covers the latest and best tools and technologies for data science — from gathering, cleaning, analyzing, and storing data to communicating data intelligence effectively.

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