Do we need a DIYbio academy?

image from Among my many ideas I have lying around is some form of institute to support the DIYbio community. This is different from the meet-ups happening in places like Somerville, San Francisco, Houston, and New York. And this is a bit more than what is providing (sharing of ideas within the community).

This idea adds some pieces that seem to me to be missing (please correct me, of course). I’ve been turning over these thoughts for some time, and since nothing has really materialized (remember, I have a high idea-execution quotient), here are my thoughts.

In my notes, I call it the Molecularist Academy (why? check out the URL above). But the name is inconsequential, what’s important is the mission – Funding, Education, and Outreach.

The mission supports seeding of money – to jump-start activities; legitimacy – practitioner education and safety (certification?); and advocacy – promotion and community education to communicate what DIYbio is about and what folks are up to.

There are a few interesting funding models out there, such as Kickstarter, Biocurious, and Awesome Foundation. My thought is to create a traditional funding system backed by large sponsors and donors to provide DIYbio-specific grants for exploration, seeding ideas, and to support activities. This funding system would have someone actually reaching out to sources such as biotech industry associations (around here, the Mass Biotech Council), leading biotech businesses (around here, Biogen, Genzyme, NEB, among others), the NIH and NSF, institutes like the Wyss and Venter Institutes, universities, and community organizations.

I do think there’s a bit of a local focus needed, as I feel the biggest contributions DIYbio can make is actually in the local communities the different groups have sprung up in.

And by creating a formalized fundraising and granting structure, the hope is to build an endowment that lasts as the DIYbio community grows. (and I've wondered about alternate ways to fund and legitimize practitioners, in an HHMI-sort of way – more in another post)

Which leads to the next mission focus.

I carry a lot of baggage from my institutional science days, so I am always stuck between letting a thousand flowers bloom and hoping folks don't kill themselves or others while futzing with biotech tools.

The education part of the Academy would set up courses and seminars to teach techniques, science culture, and, most importantly, safety certification. The Academy would be vetted by existing safety organizations and provide legitimacy to the practitioners. And, there would be a structure of re-certification and continuing credits sort of education.

Safety is a big deal and my brief foray into how to communicate it made me realize that it’s much more than just putting up a bunch of pages of regulations and recommendations. Folks like the FBI and the local regulatory bodies likely want more structure.

As part of this Education mission, I’ve also been trying to gauge the need for a patent clearing system, to make sure DIYbiologists are working with the appropriate product licenses, which suggests the Academy should work with tools providers to create special DIYbio tinkering licenses.

And that leads to the third and final part of the mission.

This is public outreach, outside the community.

I’ve spent less time thinking of this part as the folks from already seem to be doing a good job of reaching out to the public and news groups to explain what DIYbio is and can do, and reaching out to agencies who should consider the implications of DIYbio.

And I know there’s been talk of extending this outreach to courses and seminars to engage schools, local communities, and influencers to make DIYbio part of public thinking.

Outreach should also include working with regulatory and policy agencies to take DIYbio into consideration when revising or creating regulations and policies. has been very good here too.

And, finally, as part of outreach, would we need to have an Asilomar-type event, bringing stakeholders together to hash out the future of Natural Philosophy in the 21st Century, particularly as it pertains to Biology and non-institutional biologists?

There it is
So there’s my Academy, supporting funding, education, and outreach to promote DIYbio. Of course, this could be built upon the existing structure. I just wanted to get these ideas out there.

What do you think?

Image from tiseb

As an aside, I was looking more into Biocurious and see they are thinking the same things, though still with a crowd-funded model.

3 thoughts on “Do we need a DIYbio academy?

  1. How is this different from institutional science? When would it stop being “DIY”? Does that matter? Do you just want to recreate something that already exists or make something new and better?

  2. That’s a good question.
    I am exploring how to add value to DIY without killing its essence. I’m always stuck between how much structure to add and how far back one should stand. I think that reflects my background in institutional science.
    But what is the essence of DIY? Is crowd-funding DIY-ish, but someone going around cap-in-hand to build a fund is not (Kickstarter vs Awesome Foundation)? Is certifying for safety not DIY-ish? Is offering courses and seminars not DIY-ish (these are already happening)? Is having shared space and equipment not DIY (think of all the hackspaces sprouting)?
    I think DIY is in the tinkerer, not necessarily in the access to info or money. When we get to the point that “DIYers” go through a multi-year formalized training structure with a formalized communication scheme and formalized infrastructure, then we’re back at institutionalized science.
    But you’re right, the more structure you add, the more you just seem like an institution.
    As for recruiting or improving, I’d rather get DIY tinkers recognized by established organizations rather than replicate a whole infrastructure. I think we have all the structures in place to encourage bio-tinkering. If we can get these established structures to provide all the things I’ve listed below, then the answer to my question in the title would be “No”.
    For example, what if the Mass Biotech Council had a team focused on promoting DIYbio? I think it would end up doing all the things I list above, within a framework shared with traditional bioscience business and institutions, without killing the tinkering spirit of DIYbio.
    What do you think?

  3. One of the projects brought to me a while ago was the idea of a p2p university where students roamed from hackerspace to hackerspace. I think that this would be a good model for a diybio academy. There are really amazing people out there in the scene, and they are brilliant teachers and educators. Let’s talk sometime!
    - Bryan
    1 512 203 0507

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