Medical Biophysics Graduate Student Association

MBPGSA Blog

Updates, opinion pieces, and news related to the department

Take a coffee break, outsource your experiments

Think about the times you’ve wished that someone who’s got the necessary skills could perform your experiments for you. Just imagine how much time it would save. Well now there is a solution: outsourcing your experiments. ScienceExchange.com, a recently launched start-up helps scientists do just that by providing an online platform through which scientists can connect and experiments (or specific components of an experiment) can be outsourced to better-prepared facilities. This small company based out of Palo Alto, CA, first launched out of Miami by its three co-founders: Dr. Elizabeth Iorns, Ryan Abbott and Dan Knox. I would imagine that this is what results from putting a breast cancer researcher (Dr. Iorns) and two young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs in one room.

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Science Exchange offers (as a first product) to act as a research middleman. It does so by facilitating collaboration between scientists. They make it easy for scientists at institutions lacking equipment and personnel to outsource experiments to institutes and universities with large core facilities. Their team will essentially deal with all billing, money transfer, quality assurance and dispute resolutions required to make the science happen. In theory, this would then allow scientists outsourcing experiments to better focus on other, perhaps more crucial aspects of their work instead of purchasing new equipment, training new staff or hiring a graduate student to re-develop a pre-existing laboratory technique.

In a Scientific America blog article, Dr. Iorns describes the moment at which the idea first surfaced in her mind. She claims that it was the frustrations she encountered when her “ … research hit a roadblock … ” because she needed to conduct experiments completely out of her field of expertise. Searching for a lab or a provider to run these experiments proved to be a challenging (and apparently frustrating) task on multiple levels. Dr. Iorns also describes conversations she has had with individuals who dedicate much of their time and energy towards raising money for breast cancer research. These individuals claim that they are  “ … frustrated at the lack of (optimal and efficient) collaboration in scientific research and the lack of progress despite immense spending … ”. It seems that all these events were enough to push Dr. Iorns to test her luck as an entrepreneur and to co-found ScienceExchange.com.

But I guess the big question now is: can outsourcing do to science what it did to IT a decade ago? It’s a tough question, but I am of the opinion that it can’t. There is no doubt that having that option available is useful (it already exists to a certain extent in many research institutes), but I cannot imagine it having such a large impact on scientific research. In general, scientists (especially the new ones) like to be involved in their experiments. Further, the struggles Ph.D. students go through to develop and re-develop techniques often give rise to great scientific innovations. One could also argue that it’s an important element of a graduate student’s training. It certainly helps gain a deeper grasp of the work being performed. I can think of a few other reasons why this might not fly with the scientific community. But who knows! What do you think?

Ahmed