Breaking science: the laboratory which was an experiment

La Paillasse is a community laboratory. Its researchers exist alongside start-ups and statisticians, to set science free and give everyone access to it.

NOV 2016 A year on, what is the feeling in Paris?
Created by: Greymakers(@greymakers) Texts by: Sophie Lauth Photography by: Lewis Joly

« Our desire is to be fully open. Being open can free science from its demons. » Thomas Landrain passionately shares the philosophy of his open and community laboratory: La Paillasse. Here, none of the researchers is enclosed in a bubble. Designers, startupers, statisticians and even laymen are driven by the same keyword: open science.

The laboratory organises « Hack your PhD » sessions, artificial intelligence workshops and debates about bioethics. Its activities are diverse: one evening it's « Tech Fashion week », the day after it's Elon Musk's announcement of the Mars colonisation project. Going down to the old vaulted cellars, I come across a drone garage, a sensory flotation cocoon and colonies of bacteria designed to produce ink. This mixture attracts attention: public authorities, private partners and many media support the project. Nowadays, Thomas is invited all over the world to talk about « participatory science » and is involved in several research programmes about...how to research differently.

Science beyond walls

Thomas has just returned from the Network Science Institute of Boston. With this pioneering centre, he is imagining progressing towards « mass collaboration and a post-academic world ».

« University research is the last territory that hasn't gone through the digital disruption. »

He continued: « a researcher can spend 30 years on the same subject in order to be the best and in the hope of winning a scholarship. But in the end 80% of research is useless and the rest is covered by patents and not accessible to the public. »

A brilliant rebel

This life as a lab rat, as described by Thomas, could have been his own. Top of his year in biology at university, at 20 years-old he went to the Normale Superieure, a prestigious Parisian college. But he was just bored there. « I was in the best masters programme for genetics but it was dire: the course wasn't interesting and the teachers weren't motivated. » The problem wasn't new: right from when he was very young he learned outside the usual framework. Bad at school, he retreated home to devour books on the universe or elementary particles. « At 8, during a trip to Chamonix with my parents, I turned up at an Egyptology conference. I was so passionate about it that a researcher invited me back to her hotel to continue the discussion. ».
This is obviously the reason why Thomas finally decided to step off the beaten path and start a biology club with his mates, at the same time as doing the ENS course. Together, they got first prize at iGEM, an international competition organized by MIT. « For five months we worked like mad things with lots of different people: pharmacists, engineers, IT specialist and mathematicians. That was my trigger moment: another way of doing science was possible. ».

Makeshift lab

Everything came together when he discovered /tmp/lab, the first hacker space in France, in the Parisian suburbs. « It was a community united around strong values: transparency, sharing, citizen counter-power. In short, the opposite of the academic world. ». La Paillasse was born out of that meeting - a makeshift laboratory in 15 m2 lent by the hacker space. « So we piled up reclaimed materials and used supermarket products to work on DNA, it was half way between Mad Max and Breaking Bad", Thomas recalled, laughing. For three years a community developed and managed several feats, including a hyper low-cost genetic test called « quick and dirty dna barcoding », whose protocol, published in open source, has been around the world.

« We even managed to get funding from NASA! »

« After three years, fifteen projects, fifty collaborators and start ups, we had a balance sheet, a level of productivity and legitimacy equivalent to a basic academic lab » summarised the researcher. The days of squatting were over, La Paillasse moved to the heart of Paris and from 15 to 700 square metres. It was an opportunity to open up to new audiences, especially women who were reluctant to go to Vitry. « The politics of putting research centres in the suburbs and locking the brain boxes in them is absurd », according to Thomas. « They should be places of meetings and serendipity. »

For that to happen we have to overturn the scientific paradigm: intellectual property, and economic and collaborative models. La Paillasse has launched Epimedium, a platform that brings together free data on cancer, and which designers and statisticians are collaborating on. Because Thomas is convinced that with the advances in computer technology and the lower cost of research, the era of science beyond walls has arrived. Today, many visitors to La Paillasse have never set foot in a laboratory before. Several organisations, like SOS Mediterranean, which comes to the rescue of migrants at sea, hold events there. Further proof that it works, the La Paillasse model has been exported from Switzerland to the Philippines. « How many scientists are there in the world? A few hundred thousand. How many people have the skills and the desire to change things? Hundreds of millions », concluded Thomas.

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