December 21, 2013

75 First Street suite 104
Cambridge, MA 02141

I read with pleasure your report on DIYbio, amateur biologists doing science outside of funded academic and commercial labs.  Strictly speaking I am one such although I neither use sophisticated technology nor am I particularly young.  A friend and I, both licensed and practicing physicians in Florida and both having in the past published scientific articles, did an experiment with fruit flies and demonstrated a principle that could be used to control mosquito populations without the use of insecticides or at least a way to use insecticides smarter.  We were able to get our results published, and I attach the paper.  We did this entirely without outside funding or intuitional support. 

The tradeoffs of being independent seem obvious.  For one, there’s no pay and for another there are no cute technologists to brighten the day.  There is no department chief to provide guidance, and there are no snazzy toys.  You can never get away from the lab because you live there. 

On the other hand there is the opportunity to pursue the science for hours a day 7 days a week for years on end without apologizing to anybody, at least if you are a hermit.  You can establish your own criteria for excellence.  For instance in medicine you would not want to make a critical decision without getting a tissue examination by an expert if at all possible.  Yet in the biological sciences there is seldom reference to light microscopy.  It’s not done, so it doesn’t have to be done so it’s not funded so it’s not done.  We did it. 

So far as getting government oversight and funding, obviously there would be advantages.  But safety is no problem.  Nothing goes into the experiment that I would not happily eat except the flies themselves and on a dare I’d eat them once they were retired.  The real problem with any institutional connection would be that our approach was so unorthodox that it would have met derision from anybody with money to hand out.  It worked just fine, but the abstractions behind the approach seem out of reach to all but a few. 

So nope, we wouldn’t touch money or regulation.  Some day, sure.  Evidence piles up regularly – yes in your own journal – that supports the principle.  Eventually people will notice.  Then funding might become possible.  Then an institution might help. 

Meanwhile I for one am enjoying the, for me, unprecedented experience of doing something trendy.


M. Linton Herbert MD

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