How DIY technologies are democratizing science

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Open science and 3D printing are making it easier than ever for researchers to embrace do-it-yourself lab tools. Via Nature.com

For some researchers, the allure of do-it-yourself research is the DIY itself: building and maintaining bespoke equipment is an engineering and technical challenge. But for others, it’s a financial matter. Homemade equipment tends to be substantially less expensive — and therefore more accessible — than commercial alternatives.

Thomas Mboa, founder of MboaLab, a collaborative space that provides training and resources for open science in Yaoundé, Cameroon, recalls that he didn’t get to even touch a microscope when he was studying molecular biology at the University of Yaoundé I. “I just had the theoretical knowledge, and the explanation they gave us at that time was that the equipment is very expensive,” he says. “Open science and DIY biology can fix the technological gap we are facing in Africa.”

Using freely available designs, researchers can build everything from pipettes and incubators to polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machines for amplifying DNA. Joshua Pearce, a materials engineer at Michigan Technological University in Houghton who has written a book about building open-source hardware in science, estimates that he’s saved hundreds of thousands of dollars by building his own lab equipment. “We basically don’t buy stuff any more,” he says. Hardware built from open-source designs generally costs just 1–10% of the price of commercial counterparts, says Pearce, and he has curated many of the designs on his website, Open-Source Lab.

“Hardware is the last barrier that we need to break before science really becomes more widely available,” says University of Sussex research bioengineer Andre Maia Chagas. Chagas has started a database, called Open Neuroscience, that people can use to share their projects, and he provides advice to TReND in Africa. Open hardware, he says, can help to democratize research in places such as India, Brazil and across Africa. “Now groups in all these countries can build things themselves and bring themselves to the same playing field,” he says.

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