Academic biology and its discontents

Disaffected grad students and postdocs increasingly turn to DIYbio to do work that makes a difference.

When we started BioCoder, we assumed that we were addressing the DIYbio community: interested amateur hobbyists and experimenters without much formal background in biology, who were learning and working in independent hackerspaces.

A couple of conversations have made me question that assumption — not that DIYbio exists; it’s clearly a healthy and growing movement, with new labs and hackerspaces starting in most major cities. But there’s another group mixed in with the amateurs, with a distinctly different set of capabilities and goals. DIYbio doesn’t mean exactly what we thought it did.

That group is what I broadly call “disaffected grad students and postdocs.” They’ve got training, loads of it. But they’ve spent the last few years working in a laboratory under a faculty member, furthering that faculty member’s agenda. They have their own ideas and their own research projects, but they can’t work on them within the context of academic biology. They’re funded by a grant, and the grant will only pay for certain things. And, as Anthony Di Franco points out in “Superseding Institutions in Science and Medicine” (in the current issue of BioCoder), grants are primarily given to people who already know what they’re going to find, and that is not how you get truly innovative and creative research.

So, grad students and postdocs are increasingly turning to the DIYbio scene to do work that makes a difference. Some are working within established labs like Genspace or BioCurious; others are building garage labs or kitchen labs of their own; and still others are working in more advanced biohacker facilities such as Berkeley BioLabs or Bio, Tech, & Beyond. These organizations offer mentoring, advice on fundraising, marketing, and other business issues. Their goal is to make it easier for professional biologists to get a startup off the ground. They aren’t all that different from other tech incubators, just with lab benches and centrifuges. QB3, the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences, even offers a “Startup in a Box” kit for entrepreneurs in biology.

What’s important about the “disaffected postdoc” phenomenon is that it answers one of the biggest questions about the coming revolution in biotech. Sure, a student can make glowing E. coli. That’s the “hello world” of synthetic biology. Making a glowing plant is a lot harder, and still requires PhD-level expertise. That’s changing, as we understand what it means for synthetic biology to become an engineering discipline. We have a catalog of standard biological parts, we have tools for designing DNA, and we can outsource the actual DNA synthesis. It has gotten much easier to do innovative work, and we expect it to get even easier. But the bar to real innovation is still set very high, and it will be some time before we see many bioscience startups founded by enthusiastic amateurs.

Grad students and postdocs who are leaving academia have already gotten over that bar. They’re a critical missing piece to the puzzle: they have the knowledge and creativity necessary to drive biological innovation in the near term. And some of their innovation will be spent developing the tools that will open up biology to a much wider range of participants.

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