Recently, our pal Dan Grushkin called our attention to the release of a survey of the DIYBio and synthetic biology done by the Woodrow Wilson Institute. In this report, some recommendations are made for government funding of places like ours. (Putting aside any schisms about whether we should take government money) this is making us wonder about these funding opportunities, as our till remains dangerously low.
There are, of course, several government funding mechanisms, but one of the more prolific is the National Science Foundation, which is an organization that is a favorite target of congressional potshots, and frequently the center of spending controversies. We were wondering about how they decide what to fund. Is there some, well, science to figuring out what science the NSF should support? What might they be thinking about as they figure out whether or not to spend money on supporting community labs?
Well, there's always an expert nearby. A web perusal turned up Dr Joshua Rosenbloom, serving as the Director of a fairly new science called the “Science of Science Innovation Policy”. He has agreed to talk to us about what the heck he does.
In Dr Rosenbloom’s words “The United States devotes almost three percent of national income to Research & Development activities. What do we get from these expenditures? Can they be directed more effectively? How do policy choices affect the quality and quantity of scientific activity in this country and around the globe? Since 2007 the National Science Foundation has supported an interdisciplinary program of social science research called the Science of Science and Innovation Policy (SciSIP) that funds research that seeks to answer these and other related questions. Joshua Rosenbloom, Professor of Economics at the University of Kansas and the current director of the SciSIP program will offer insights about the program’s operation, its achievements and the challenges of creating a Science of Science Policy."
So, if you want to understand how “good” science might be measured and funded, (and how we appear to be funding research on funding research) please attend. Once again, this is a casual free event, far away from the usual suspects, so that you, the people can learn something from the horses mouth! (However, we would deeply appreciate a donation in order to keep these things going) Please RSVP HERE
How to clone a gene! This five session course will walk you through the various ways in which genes can be isolated and cloned into bacteria and yeast, providing you with a foundation on the techniques of synthetic biology.
The lab project portion of the course will entail isolation and cloning of the gene encoding the Taq polymerase protein, and you will go home with the skills to make your own Taq polymerase – the enzyme at the heart of PCR, whose virtues are hailed by synthetic biologists everywhere, especially when sponsored by certain multi-billion dollar companies. . .
Along the way you’ll learn how to isolate DNA, how to use freely available software to design and check cloning projects, how to design primers for PCR projects, how to set up and run a PCR reaction, How to digest DNA with restriction enzymes, how to ligate DNA and create recombinant DNA molecules, how to transform bacteria and identify those that contain your recombinant DNA, and lastly how to assay your recombinant molecule for activity.
The five sessions are designed to give a good survey of synthetic biology techniques while doing an interesting project. While we encourage you to take all five sessions, each session can stand on its own. You do not need to commit to all five sessions to enjoy the experience. There are no prerequisites except interest!
Sessions are all on Saturdays at 10:00 am to about 1:00 pm, on Feb 1, Feb 15, March 1, March 15th, and March 22
Cost to register for this first session is $65. Free to members. Please register HERE
Please feel free to email us with questions at firstname.lastname@example.org
Here are my very off-hand, grandiose, and perhaps long-winded (shoulda made a movie with a puppy in it) thoughts about a Baltimore community effort in the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition. This annual competition has been going on since 2004, in an effort to encourage fun and creativity in the field of synthetic biology, while adding to the collection of the iGEM registry of standard parts. This is a growing collection of genetic parts that can be mixed and matched to build synthetic biology devices and systems. (The contest is not limited to this scope, but submitting a part is generally a requirement of any team effort)
As you may know, this year, for the first time, the contest is open to community labs like ours. This should dramatically reduce the previous barriers to entry involving age and education, and I hope it might be lead to much bigger things in the region. . . but first a little dogma
While biotech has been a nice jobs engine in Maryland, I think it still suffers from a rather gold-plated legacy because of its current association with drug discovery and production, big pharma, university and government research, and big regulation. I will never forget the multi-thousand dollar mop and bucket I saw while looking at an equipment liquidation at the old Nabi plant in Rockville (the mop had to be autoclavable you see) I believe that these kinds of things are the result of a largely grant and government driven industry.
There still also seems to be a rather formal culture as the result of this legacy. I think that this culture is an extension of the formal student-advisor thing that goes on in universities. Lots of lab coats, pretensions, careful conversations, nondisclosure agreements, large institutions. . . still not typically reflective of the open source tech culture, despite all the noise about DIY bio, the BioPunk movement, and Maryland’s biotech revolutionaries of yore.
But Biotech could be so much more. IGEM projects provide a sneak peek into the future These visions include smart drug delivery, microbial fuel cells, environmental remediation, new types of fuels, bacterial cement for Martian bricks, artistic multicolor generation, 3-D printing using genetic expression controlled by light, spiciness sensing, plastic production, dna gardening, and of course, bright blinky lights.
Really, almost anything might be possible. The field really demands participation from a wide variety of types of people, and now might be your chance.
Now, the dogma part is over, but there is more to be said. The current biotech establishment (dissed a little bit above) is full of some of our societies most talented people, typically very underpaid for their level of skill and education. So many seem very overqualified for the job they are doing. This applies to people in supporting positions as well as the scientists. The field attracts excellence; and these people are my heroes. It’s really a testament to their dedication that they shun investment banking or design of the latest messaging app, in favor of doing great science for largely the sake of the science itself.
Admittedly, there is a considerable skill gap between the techie generalist or amateur, and the biotech specialist or scientist. This stuff takes work, and typically does not have the instant gratification (yet) of arduinos and blinky lights. So we could really use more involvement by skilled people. So here’s a special and respectful invitation to these people to lend their talents and help out.
But I hope everyone can consider participating, in some bold crazy audacious project, preferably involving lots of different groups, not only for the thrill of the technology and competition, but also keeping in mind this romantic, perhaps naïve, idea of iGEM being a springboard of all kinds of less traditional biotech in Baltimore. Could this be Baltimore’s big job’s engine? It’s easy to picture. So, (in the great tradition of all great carpetbaggers), I must ask why these things can’t happen here? Why not now?
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