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Adam's Weekly Blog

Cost-conscious science

Cost-conscious science

When people think of cutting-edge science and technology they might list the...
When people think of cutting-edge science and technology they might list the Large Hadron Collider, the most expensive scientific experiment ever, or perhaps the rockets that take us into space or, for those a little more into their science, the Square Kilometre Array – the largest radio telescope ever built.

But ironically in looking at the very large we are missing something very big and that is the science of the small.

When I talk about small science, I do not mean it literally. I am not talking about investigations of atoms or molecules, what I mean is human-sized science.

The sort of technology built from the kinds of things we can see around us. It is the sort of technology that is designed to help with human-sized problems that traditional approaches sometimes ignores or is so costly as to be beyond the reach of many people who need its help.

That search for a different kind of approach to science has taken me to the Small Devices Laboratory at one of the world’s leading science universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States.

At the Small Devices Lab they believe that you do not have to spend a fortune to come up with innovative solutions to your problems. In fact, restricting your budget can often make you approach the subject in a completely novel way.

That frugal approach to science and technology is creating real dividends, not just in the cash-strapped developing world, but right around the globe. Cutting costs does not mean you have to stop being cutting edge.

Jose Gomez-Marquez and his team at MIT aim to make medical science cheaper and therefore much more widely available but they believe they can reduce cost, increase access without reducing any of the quality of the products they are producing.

Jose says he is trying to democratise medical developments, giving access to the many. Part of the problem, he claims, is that over the years we let scientists assume an almost priestly role. Assuming no one else can translate the science of the laboratories into the tools we use every day. He believes that non-experts can also have a useful say in how medical devices should be created. That is why his lab is filled with children’s toys. You might not be able to buy high specification tools in small rural villages in the developing world, but you are likely to pick up discarded children’s toys.

The scientists here are hijacking the technology of the playground and using it to build devices which help local medical research and save lives.

One project which caught my eye in the back of the lab was a multi-coloured tower built of children’s Lego bricks.

Sitting next to it was a small white machine that does the same job as the tower but costs $6,000 (£3,800).

Both the expensive and the cheap machines are built to do a simple but vital task. They both push a syringe with the aim of depositing multiple samples of liquid in very precise amounts in exact places.

The machine is used in labs around the world to test samples. But the scientists believe this Lego machine does the job just as well, costs a fraction of the professionally produced machine but because it is cheaper, the Lego tester could give millions more people access to the medical testing facility.

Jose’s colleague Anna Young took this approach and applied it to life saving nebulisers which can provide drugs straight to the lungs. Instead of using traditional expensive medical equipment, she looked around at the sort of technology you can find in villages round the world and built the nebuliser from a bicycle pump.

Jose believes he and his team are helping to unlock the secrets of medical devices with the toys that surround us all so that they can help develop a world in which he says “everyone can play and everyone can heal.”
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