Opinion: Use the Pandemic to Expand the Lab to the Home
Opinion: Use the Pandemic to Expand the Lab to the Home

Opinion: Use the Pandemic to Expand the Lab to the Home

Researchers have been forced to reckon with restrictions on lab access. Now is the time to figure out how to make science portable and widely accessible.

Michael Levin
Jun 30, 2020

ABOVE: S. Levin using a dissecting microscope with a simple USB camera to set up a regeneration memory assay for planaria in a petri dish
MICHAEL LEVIN

COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic we face in the coming years. This is an opportunity to learn how to decentralize scientific research and make it more robust. Research is a crucial area in which the world must become quarantine-proof. While some kinds of experiments clearly must be done entirely inside a state-of-the-art laboratory, there is a considerable sector of the scientific community’s research portfolio that could continue even when social distancing prohibits normal operation of laboratories. To do this, there are steps that laboratory heads, educators, reviewers, journal editors, and university administrators should take now to keep the essential stream of basic science flowing during this and subsequent quarantines. I propose that we must now begin to take the necessary regulatory, cultural, and logistical steps to enable some kinds of basic research to be done at home by scientists who cannot go to the lab or who want to minimize their in-person presence there.

For many of us, our homes will become “field stations” so that work can continue. Of course, this will not be the optimal way to do science. And doing real discovery (other than computational work) from home may seem impractical to researchers used to unfettered 24/7 access to world-class facilities. But research cannot simply grind to a halt due to epidemics, and as in other areas of life, we have to adapt and creatively transform our expectations of what is normal. We are rapidly moving away from a world in which we can assume that real science has to be done in large laboratories. In fact, the history of science is full of remarkable breakthroughs that were made by committed, resilient investigators working under remarkably disruptive conditions (for example, wartime).

I believe that it should be possible to set up logistics and operational frameworks to enable some researchers to work on amphibians, invertebrates, plants, microbiota, and many other systems in their homes, at least part-time. Behavioral observation in simple environments, progressive steps of regeneration or development under various conditions, and other experiments that do not require expensive culture conditions can readily be done. Microscopy, microphotography, molecular biology, incubation, and even automation are increasingly available to all via inexpensive equipment.

This is an incredible opportunity to engage with the thriving movements for the democratization and crowdsourcing of science.

For example, a researcher studying the effects of various compounds on spinal cord regeneration in tadpoles could take home frog embryos, keeping them in a simple incubator. They could be monitored, photographed, and manipulated over the course of a week, and then brought back to the lab for confocal microscopy. All of the steps leading up to the sophisticated imaging can be done at home with minimal space requirements and cost, reducing interpersonal contact in the lab and freeing up space in the lab for those who have to be there. Other examples include long-term evolution experiments with yeast and bacteria, and behavioral experiments on addiction, memory, and problem-solving in easy-to-use model systems such as planaria, plants, slime molds, and even unicellular forms.

This is not only a call to normalize and reinvigorate the “independent scientist” role that was prevalent early in the last century, nor is it only about virus-induced quarantines. This is also an incredible opportunity to engage with the thriving movements for the democratization and crowdsourcing of science, low-cost STEM education available to all social strata, frugal science, citizen science and biohacking, facilitation of research for those with disabilities or during pregnancy and breastfeeding, and enabling of research in developing countries.

Many procedures have been developed to facilitate discovery at field stations and in environments completely different from modern laboratories. It is essential to develop and begin to implement a roadmap for what I call Science@Home in which the products of those movements are integrated and deployed across the research enterprise to facilitate research at home, preserving the path of progress despite lab shutdowns.

Essential steps include: 

  1. education of university administrators, funding agencies, and regulatory bodies on the critical need to change long-held, largely unquestioned beliefs about how research must be done
  2. creation of an online clearinghouse that is inclusive to the movements mentioned above and aggregates in one portal all of the advances and resources for science out of the lab, as well as providing information on local ordinances that may govern certain kinds of work 
  3. dissemination of this information to PIs so that they can begin to formulate a strategy that includes the optimal amount of Science@Home activity for their research programs
  4. development of inventory control systems to enable scientists to borrow equipment when feasible
  5. discussions with regulatory committees and government bodies to establish best practices for what can and cannot be done at home (with respect to chemical and biological safety and animal use) and establish teleconference protocols for inspection, certification, and oversight of remote workspaces
  6. forums with journal editors, especially those of open science publications such as eLIFE and iScience, to develop policies and educate referees for reviewing work done outside of traditional labs
  7. outreach to funding sources that already support science in the field for grants to improve and quarantine-proof the research enterprise

Benefits include not only the maintenance of existing funding contracts, careers, and discoveries, but also a continued cycle of improvements of methods and devices to enable science across the world, including in places where advanced labs are not available, making it accessible at low cost and helping move forward the educational and research missions of academia. Examples include PCR at home, centrifuges made out of salad spinners, cardboard microscopes, autoclaves made of kitchen appliances, punchcard microfluidics, and much more.

There are clearly many regulatory and logistical issues to overcome, including inventory control, biosafety, and animal use. But I argue that there is no practical alternative to grappling with these issues now.

I call on universities to break down the outdated, artificial barriers demarcating “official places of science” and develop best practices for facilitating a thriving research enterprise. Partnerships between local governments and universities are needed to address permitting. Foundations with interest in facilitating science in the developing world, as well as government agencies that fund research, should establish funding for advancement of equipment and procedures that can be used in non-lab conditions, as well as for pivoting recent advances in remote surgery and virtual reality to real-time remote control of laboratory apparatus.

The very last thing we should be doing during pandemics is squandering our intellectual and biological resources and losing momentum on impactful research programs after all the grant-writing, review, and administrative effort that has been spent on initiating them. Establishing research continuity and enabling inexpensive science to take place wherever and whenever possible should be the mission of the educational and research communities, not only during pandemics but always. COVID-19 can help us do this.

Michael Levin is the director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University, where he works at the intersection of computer science, developmental biology, and cognitive science. Follow him on Twitter @drmichaellevin and share your experiences doing science at home with the hashtags #Science@Home and #PostLabScience.