Inventions that show why accessible tools matter for scientific discovery

What if everyone had access to powerful tools for scientific learning and problem solving? Scientific discovery tools — from telescopes to magnetometers — help us answer questions and generate knowledge. But many powerful tools are too expensive or too difficult for non-experts to use.

Tool Foundry by Luminary Labs

Earlier this month, Luminary Labs launched Tool Foundry to advance scientific discovery tools that anyone can use. The initiative is funded by grants from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and Schmidt Futures to expand access to science.

Tool Foundry is accepting applications through May 30, 2019 for a four-month accelerator, designed to help citizen scientists, inventors, makers, and designers iterate and scale accessible tools. As part of the accelerator, cohort members will receive $50,000 in non-dilutive capital, expert mentorship, technical guidance, virtual learning modules, user testing opportunities, and an in-person boot camp at the Autodesk Technology Center in San Francisco.

Why does this matter? Accessible tools can inspire a deeper interest in science and empower people to indulge their curiosity, explore their environments, and solve problems relevant to their own communities. We’ve been inspired by the real-world impact of many accessible scientific tools that are already in use. Here are three examples of inventions that expand access to science:

Safecast’s open-source geiger counters

In 2011, an earthquake-triggered tsunami resulted in a nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan. Geiger counters, devices used to measure radiation levels, were in high demand and a global shortage led to soaring prices.

Local citizen scientists created what is now known as Safecast, a community-led initiative to collect and pool data using open-source, networked geiger counters. The project has produced over 120 million data points as of March 2019 — and by making that data available to everyone, Safecast has contributed to public safety knowledge and helped restore public trust.

Foldscope Instruments’ $1 Paper Microscope

Research on a microscopic level has led to breakthrough innovations from healthcare to agriculture. But traditional microscopes are often expensive and bulky. They break easily and are difficult to replace. Stanford scientists Manu Prakash and Jim Cybulski developed the Foldscope, a foldable microscope made mostly from paper. It’s ultra-portable and costs less than $1 to produce.

tools for scientific learning

To date, the organization has distributed nearly 650,000 Foldscopes, which have been used around the world — including to identify the microscopic eggs of agricultural pests in India, catalog the biodiversity of soil arthropods in the Amazon, and map pollen diversity in city landscapes.

Conservation X Labs’ DNA Barcode Scanner

Illegal wildlife trade generates between $7 billion and $23 billion each year in illicit revenue. Many fish, timber species, and other wildlife are difficult to identify visually — especially if they have been turned into processed products. DNA analysis can be a useful tool, but typically requires a lab with expensive equipment.

tools for scientific learning

Conservation X Labs’ low-cost, modular, portable DNA Barcode Scanner allows users to take a sample of a product and confirm its species identity — within an hour — without access to taxonomic experts or a laboratory. Working with scientists and law enforcement officials around the world, the scanner has contributed to the BOLD database, which now includes over 6.7 million DNA barcode sequences from more than 275,000 species.

Finding and Creating Tools

To discover other projects that use accessible, low-cost tools and instruments, visit SciStarter’s database of projects added by the global citizen science community. SciStarter is developing a citizen science tools database, which is still in beta.

Have you created your own tool, or do you have an idea for one? We’re looking for high-potential teams and individuals with prototypes for low-cost, high-quality, and easy-to-use physical tools for scientific discovery. To learn more about Tool Foundry and ask questions about the accelerator, join our informational webinar on Tuesday, April 23.

Tool Foundry is also developing and curating free resources to help inventors everywhere create, scale, and share their tools. Sign up to receive the Tool Foundry Journal in your inbox, and you’ll be the first to know when new resources are available.

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About the Author

Elizabeth Bowling

Elizabeth Bowling

Elizabeth is a Strategist at Luminary Labs, a New York-based strategy and innovation consultancy that helps private sector, nonprofit, and government organizations thrive in the face of change. Elizabeth leads Tool Foundry, an initiative expanding access to science. She has a keen interest in exploring questions with uncertain answers and is fascinated by the path to discovery. She seeks initiatives that effect real change and is interested in how technological advances will transform industries and society.