Biohacking Project Tests DIY Night Vision Eye Drops, Military Salivating As Science Press Politely Looks Away

biohacking experiments science
Night vision eyedrops are pretty metal. Gabriel Licina / Science for the Masses

Science for the Masses, a California biohacking hobbyist group, successfully squirted enough deep-sea fish chlorophyll (Chlorin e6) into a guy’s eyeballs to improve his night vision. They got the idea from past experiments squirting deep-sea fish chlorophyll (Chlorin e6) into a mouse-guy’s eyeballs to improve his night vision. Remarkably, the night vision eye drops worked. Somehow, Mic did some wonderful reporting on the experiment without mentioning the obvious military possibilities for the treatment. 

The biohacking experiment by Science for the Masses was a demonstration of DIY experimentation, partially conducted to dramatize the viability of independent science. Jeffrey Tibbetts, the group’s medical officer (just like Star Trek!) told Max Plenke of Mic, ”There are rules to be followed and don't go crazy, but science isn't a mystical language that only a few elite people can speak."

The group describes their work as “the development of ‘citizen science.’”

Ok, But What the Hell is Biohacking?

Biohacking: Do it yourself! from Sara Krugman on Vimeo.

When the vast majority of research has been placed behind paywalls or otherwise privatized (even opening access to taxpayer funded research is an ongoing struggle) it’s hard to imagine a more noble vision for the place of science in our society. Plus, is there a more fly way to spread the DIY word than pinning a guy’s eyes open with Clockwork Orange speculum and sending him out in the woods to hunt people hiding in the shadows? Congratulations are due to the Science for the Masses team, especially biochem researcher Gabriel Licina, who took the big squirt.

night vision eyedrops
The Big Squirt. Photo: Gabriel Licina / Science for the Masses

Still, there was something omitted in the reporting on the biohacker project that suggests a strain of boosterism in popular science writing that’s worth discussing. I can’t have been the only person whose mind immediately leapt to a potential military application for night vision eye drops. In fact, the idea seems so straightforward and useful from a tactical perspective that it would be baffling to learn that the Department of Defense wasn’t funding similar research. 

Nothing Baffling to Report

Of course they are. After Ilyas Washington of Columbia University Medical Center conducted similar Chlorin e6 experiments on rabbits the U.S. Department of Defense began funding his work. “The military would want this biological enhancement so they don’t have to carry nighttime gogglesWashington told Discover Magazine in 2009.

Despite linking to Washington’s paper, the Mic article never mentions military research into similar night vision enhancements. When outlining the practical possibilities for night vision eye drops, Mic offered up “search-and-rescue teams being able to see in the dark in forested areas or hostage situations” as their only serious example. It’s a tactful choice. “Search-and-rescue teams” evoke rescuers before warriors, setting up a category that first associates with the National Park Service, the Coast Guard, and FEMA… and just so happens to include the military.

In 2012 the Department of Defense was the largest federal financial backer of engineering research, the second largest for computer science, and the third-largest supporter of R&D in colleges. The 2015 budget allocated just under $65 billion in military research. Of course, it’s just a small part of a defense budget that could blossom to as much as $619 billion in 2015 (Obama’s $561 billion target likely established the funding floor). Whatever this number means to you, military spending is undeniably a leading priority for the United States government, taking up 17% of 2014 federal spending.

Despite military spending representing such a meaningful chunk of applied science research, science writers often seem inclined to leave it out of the picture. When so much of science writing focuses on the real-world applications or exciting possibilities of experimental research it’s hard not to see an obscuring squeamishness in war's omission.

The Mic article, dealing explicitly with an experiment conducted independent of typical private or public funding entanglements, is not obligated to mention evident real-world uses for night vision eye drops. But the peculiar absence speaks to a general inclination among science writers to hold the focus firmly on their preferred science futures.

Naturally, many science writers are science enthusiasts, and many more have fundamentally optimistic appraisals of what technology and science will provide our future as a species. This can bias coverage toward utopian visionaries, but more often shows as a soft self-censorship that dodges any discussion that has the slightest chance of appearing to militarize science.

But this is not keeping the politics of violence out of science. Instead it’s surrendering science to politics; allowing others to politicize science in the dark and leaving tangible decisions about science applications unreported and unseen. Like it or not, science policy and research deployment is an important part of the story. To prefer a vision of “citizen science” should not mean leaving out uncomfortable background.

While the Mic example is more about the (maybe subconscious) ways popular science writing tiptoes around subjects that don’t fit with scientific triumphalism, even reporting directly about the military adopts a myopic “gee-whiz” attitude. Whereas application and impact is all anyone can imagine for the Oculus Rift or the Apple Watch, as soon as science and tech writers come across technology with a military application they experience a sudden and tragic paucity of imagination.

Examples are easy to find.

Guns are described as having firepower and innovation as their only end, with any concept of violence saved for a single quote where a Lieutenant-Colonel calls it “a lethal, flexible general-purpose platform.” Even military drones, one of the few technologies to stir widespread debate in the political press over their unrestrained ability to kill, are reported as utterly divorced from potential application in the tech press

When the background and probable future of an emerging technology all involves the military it’s worth noting. Science writing doesn’t have to turn into angry screeds against bellicose foreign policy objectives, but it should acknowledge when our path to sciencetopia is paved by the most regrettable of human interactions. To do so is not to reinforce an agenda (though it can certainly be used that way), but to be honest. Otherwise it becomes increasingly obvious how quick we, as science writers, shy away at the sight of blood.

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