IGoR: because I never have enough brains.

Posted on 08 Oct 2014 17:07 by Mickey von Dassow

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Before talking about my ideas for how you could use IGoR to do scientific research, education, and outreach, I thought it might be helpful to say why I wanted a site like this for my own use.

As a biologist I often find myself trying to cobble together some device or algorithm that is a bit beyond my skill. These are not terribly sophisticated machines with thousands of high tech parts, but they are specialized. These have included custom tanks for controlling flow around colonial invertebrates, a device for measuring the stiffness of embryos (not as complicated as it might sound), and the like. There are many, many people who are not professional scientists who could easily design and build the devices I've constructed much better than I could.

At the same time, the job market and funding rates in science are terrible, and will continue to be terrible. Far more people finish graduate school than could ever get academic jobs. Grants are perpetually hard to get, especially if one is not in a well-established lab at a big-name institution. Non-academic science jobs are fine, but I became a scientist to do my own research, and follow my own curiosity, which is difficult in non-academic research jobs.

I was faced with the increasing awareness that I might not get one of the coveted academic jobs, and that even if I get one, I might not get funding. I could flatter myself by thinking that I'm the exception, and that hiring committees and grant reviewers everywhere will see me as the gem they're looking for. But logic, statistics, and a tiny modicum of humility force me to be realistic.

I started thinking about how I could keep doing science no matter what I end up doing to pay the bills, and where I end up doing it. What I wanted was a way to connect with the vast numbers of other underfunded researchers, amateur scientists, science enthusiasts, teachers, and students, so that we could pool our resources. Some big cities have "maker spaces" or community labs that would serve my needs adequately, although they might be a bit narrow in focus. However, I live in a small town without those options.

I wanted an online community where I could find other people with overlapping interests, but with skills and knowledge that I lack. A wiki seemed like the best way to do this because people can contribute directly to the development of wiki pages. Existing forums and networking sites are useful, but I want more than question-and-answer or post-and-comment interactions, and I want people outside my network to participate. A wiki should encourage the creativity and initiative of project participants, because all participants can shape the direction of a project.

When it grows into a vibrant community, the IGoR wiki will make it much easier for me, and anyone else, to do research, whether or not we have institutional support. IGoR's success would mean that I could make a living doing any job, anywhere, but still find ways to do original science on the side. Many possible research projects would only require the help of thoughtful people with time and interest. But maybe I could also find and collaborate with a home aquarist to culture invertebrates, an amateur microscopist to do imaging, or an electronics hobbyist to build sensors. Even if I remain a professional biologist, such collaborations would help me do far more than I could alone.

In the next post I plan to discuss some ways people with different levels of scientific experience or different goals would benefit from using IGoR.

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