Paperfuges and Foldscopes: The Case for Low-Tech Science

 

By Gesa Junge, PhD

 

If you have ever been inside a lab you will know that centrifuges and microscopes come in various shapes and sizes and degrees of sophistication, but in some form they are used every day in most research labs around the world. Microscopes and centrifuges are pretty basic lab equipment, although some versions can be very high-end, for example high-speed centrifuges that can cool down to fridge temperatures, or electron microscopes that can magnify structures up to 2 million times. But even basic centrifuges and microscopes cost a few thousand dollars, and they require electricity and maintenance. These are not big issues for most universities and established research institutes, but for scientists working in the field, or in developing countries, money and electricity can be hard to come by.

With this in mind, Manu Prakash from Stanford University developed a centrifuge and a microscope made of paper. Yes, you read that right. The centrifuge is basically a paper disk on two strings that you pull to make the disk spin (kind of like a whirligig Saw Mill, remember those?) – check out this video from Wired Magazine. The whole thing costs 20 cents and fits into a jacket pocket, but it can spin samples up to 12500rpm, which is fast. Fast enough, for example, to separate blood into blood cells and plasma, which is a key step in many diagnostic procedures.

And the foldscope is basically origami. It is printed on paper, you cut out the parts and fold them up and insert a lens. The microscope does need electricity, but it can run on a battery for up to 50 hours, and the sample can be mounted on a piece of tape, as opposed to a glass slide. The lens determines the magnification, and they can go up to 2000x. For reference, we can distinguish individual human cells easily at 10x, nuclei become clearly visible at 20x and bacteria at 40x. Using different color LEDs, this can even be converted into a fluorescent microscope, meaning it can be used to analyse different stains of tissues.

The paperfuge and the foldscope are the implementation of an emerging concept called “frugal science”, and aim to bring scientific advances to inaccessible and under-developed regions. And while Manu Prakash’s ideas are very low-tech approaches, the idea of making science useful to everyone also benefits from innovation and advanced technology. For example, Dr Samuel Sia at Columbia University has developed a smart phone dongle technology called mChip which can diagnose HIV from a finger prick’s worth of blood. This device contains all the necessary reagents which mix at the push of a button, and it plugs into the headphone jack of a phone as a power supply. Testing takes about 15 minutes and costs about $1 (the dongle is $100), which is a huge improvement over current methods. In a similar concept, a company called QuantumMDx in Newcastle in the UK is developing a handheld DNA testing tool, which could be used to identify strains of pathogens. And electronics company Phillips has come up with the MiniCare I-20, a handheld device that can measure troponin I levels from a single drop of blood taken from a pinprick. Troponin I is a marker of a damaged heart muscle, and is often measured in emergency departments.

All of these innovations address a really important, and sometimes overlooked, point: science and technology, in all their greatness and cool fascination, will only benefit humanity if applied in the community in a way that leads to real-life changes. As with so many resources, scientific expertise and technology, and therefore the benefit of science, are distributed incredibly unevenly among the world’s society. For example, malaria and AIDS drugs are still not reaching many of the people who need them, be it for financial, infrastructural, political, or organisational reasons. Diagnostic tests often require well-equipped labs and trained technicians. And while they are limited in their applications for research, the paperfuge and the foldscope have the potential to revolutionize diagnostics as well as education around the world. Cutting-edge research may require more sophisticated centrifuges that spin faster, microscopes that have better resolution, computers to store the images, and teams of scientists analyzing the data. But the frugal science approach is well-suited for the diagnosis of diseases, or to help a high school science class understand what cells are.

If you would like to find out more about the foldscope, check out Manu Prakash’s very cool TED talk. More information on Dr Sia’s mChip can be found here.

 

On Science and Values

 

By Rebecca Delker, PhD

 

In 1972 nuclear physicist Alvin Weinberg defined ‘trans-science’ as distinct from science (references here, here). Trans-science – a phenomenon that arises most frequently at the interface of science and society – includes questions that, as the name suggests, transcend science. They are questions, he says, “which can be asked of science and yet which cannot be answered by science.” While most of what concerned Weinberg were questions of scientific fact that could not (yet) be answerable by available methodologies, he also understood the limits of science when addressing questions of “moral and aesthetic judgments.” It is this latter category – the differentiation of scientific fact and value – that deserves attention in the highly political climate in which we now live.

Consider this example. In 2015 – 2016, action to increase the use of risk assessment algorithms in criminal sentencing received a lot of heat (and rightly so) from critics (references here, here). In an attempt to eliminate human bias from criminal justice decisions, many states rely on science in the form of risk assessment algorithms to guide decisions. Put simply, these algorithms build statistical models from population-level data covering a number of factors (e.g. gender, age, employment, etc.) to provide a probability of repeat offense for the individual in question. Until recently, the use of these algorithms has been restricted, but now states are considering expanding their utility for sentencing. What this fundamentally means is that a criminal’s sentence depends not only on the past and present, but also on a statistically derived prediction of future. While the intent may have been to reduce human bias, many argue that risk assessment algorithms achieve the opposite; and because the assessment is founded in data, it actually serves to generate a scientific rationalization of discrimination. This is because, while the data underpinning the statistical models does not include race, it requires factors (e.g. education level, socioeconomic background, neighborhood) that are, themselves, revealing of centuries of institutionalized bias. To use Weinberg’s terminology, this would fall into the first category of trans-science: the capabilities of the model fall short of capturing the complexity of race relations in this country.

But this is not the whole story. Even if we could build a model without the above-mentioned failings, there are still more fundamental ethical questions that need addressing. Is it morally correct to sentence a person for crimes not yet committed? And, perhaps even more crucial, does committing a crime warrant one to lose their right to be viewed (and treated) as an individual – a value US society holds with high regard – and instead be reduced to a trend line derived from the actions of others? It is these questions that fall into the second category of trans-science: questions of morality that science has no place in answering. When we turn to science to resolve such questions, however, we blind ourselves from the underlying, more complex terrain of values that make up the debate at hand. By default, and perhaps inadvertently, we grant science the authority to declare our values for us.

Many would argue that this is not a problem. In fact, in a 2010 TED talk neuroscientist Sam Harris claimed that “the separation between science and human values is an illusion.” Values, he says, “are a certain kind of fact,” and thus fit into the same domain as, and are demonstrable by, science. Science and morality become one in the same because values are facts specifically “about the well-being of conscious creatures,” and our moral duty is to maximize this well being.

The flaw in the argument (which many others have pointed out as well) is that rather than allowing science to empirically determine a value and moral code – as he argued it could – he presupposed it. That the well being of conscious creatures should be valued, and that our moral code should maximize this, cannot actually be demonstrated by science. I will also add that science can provide no definition for ‘well-being,’ nor has it yet – if it ever can – been able to provide answers to the questions of what consciousness is, and what creatures have it. Unless human intuition steps in, this shortcoming of science can lead to dangerous and immoral acts.

What science can do, however, is help us stay true to our values. This, I imagine, is what Harris intended. Scientific studies play an indispensable role in informing us if and when we have fallen short of our values, and in generating the tools (technology/therapeutics) that help us achieve these goals. To say that science has no role in the process of ethical decision-making is as foolish as relying entirely on science: we need both facts and values.

While Harris’ claims of the equivalency of fact and value may be more extreme than most would overtly state, they are telling of a growing trend in our society to turn to science to serve as the final arbiter of even the most challenging ethical questions. This is because in addition to the tangible effects science has had on our lives, it has also shaped the way we think about truth: instead of belief, we require evidenced-based proof. While this is a noble objective in the realm of science, it is a pathology in the realm of trans-science. This pathology stems from an increasing presence in our society of Scientism – the idea that science serves as the sole provider of knowledge.

But we live in the post-fact era. There is a war against science. Fact denial runs rampant through politics and media. There is not enough respect for facts and data. I agree with each of these points; but it is Scientism, ironically, that spawned this culture. Hear me out.

The ‘anti-science’ arguments – from anti-evolution to anti-vaccine to anti-GMO to climate change denial – never actually deny the authority of science. Rather, they attack scientific conclusions by either creating a pseudoscience (think: creationism), pointing to flawed and/or biased scientific reporting (think: hacked Climate data emails), clinging to scientific reports that demonstrate their arguments (think: the now debunked link between vaccines and autism), and by honing in on concerns answerable by science as opposed to others (think: the safety of GMOs). These approaches are not justifiable; nor are they rigorously scientific. What they are, though, is a demonstration that even the people fighting against science recognize that the only way to do so is by appealing to its authority. As ironic as it may be, fundamental to the anti-science argument is the acceptance that the only way to ‘win’ a debate is to either provide scientific evidence or to poke holes in the scientific evidence at play. Their science may be bad, but they are working from a foundation of Scientism.

 

Scientific truth has a role in each of the above debates, and in some cases – vaccine safety, for example – it is the primary concern; but too often scientific fact is treated as the only argument worth consideration. An example from conservative writer Yuval Levin illustrates this point. While I do not agree with Levin’s values regarding abortion, the topic at hand, his points are worth considering. Levin recounts that during a hearing in the House of Representatives regarding the use of the abortion drug RU-486, a DC delegate argued that because the FDA decided the drug was safe for women, the debate should be over. As Levin summarized, “once science has spoken … there is no longer any room for ‘personal beliefs’ drawing on non-scientific sources like philosophy, history, religion, or morality to guide policy.”

When we break down the abortion debate – as well as most other political debates – we realize that it is composed of matters of both fact and value. The safety of the drug (or procedure) is of utmost importance and can, as discussed above, be determined by science; this is a fact. But, at the heart of the debate is a question of when human life begins – something that science can provide no clarity on. To use scientific fact as a façade for a value system that accepts abortion is as unfair as denying the scientific fact of human-caused climate change: both attempts focus on the science (by either using or attacking) in an effort to thwart a discussion that encompasses both the facts of the debate and the underlying terrain of values. We so crave absolute certainty that we reduce complex, nuanced issues to questions of scientific fact – a tendency that is ultimately damaging to both social progress and society’s respect for science.

By assuming that science is the sole provider of truth, our culture has so thoroughly blurred the line between science and trans-science that scientific fact and value are nearly interchangeable. Science is misused to assert a value system; and a value system is misused to selectively accept or deny scientific fact. To get ourselves out of this hole requires that we heed the advice of Weinberg: part of our duty as scientists is to “establish what the limits of scientific fact really are, where science ends and trans-science begins.” Greater respect for facts may paradoxically come from a greater respect for values – or at the very least, allowing space in the conversation for them.