Open Science Hardware


Bringing Open Source to the Global Lab Bench
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In “Bringing Open Source to the Global Lab Bench” (Issues, Winter 2022), Julieta Arancio and Shannon Dosemagen write that “more inclusive public participation in science requires more than making the products of research, such as data and publications, accessible. Knowledge production itself must be opened up.”

This message is central to open science hardware, the subject of their article. As they describe, open science hardware goes far beyond the opportunities of cheap and more accessible tools for doing research, although those are substantial and worth paying attention to—especially for those funding science in the public interest. Open science hardware is indeed really low cost, and it can be much more accessible than proprietary alternatives.

The communities that form around these tools, such as the Gathering for Open Science Hardware described by Arancio and Dosemagen, are tied by more than a common interest in creating, using, and even sharing tools. Many are motivated by the promise of these tools to change the way science is done, shifting the culture of science from the individual to the (global) team.

Open science hardware goes beyond what many people usually think of as “open science,” in that it opens the process of doing science (e.g., sharing blueprints and plans, and even explanations, for how to build science tools), often in addition to expanding the products of science (e.g., data, publications). For example, the recent UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science says that citizen science and participatory science “allow new social actors to engage in scientific processes,” and these topics are included along with open hardware.

Open science hardware goes beyond what many people usually think of as “open science,” in that it opens the process of doing science, often in addition to expanding the products of science.

Arancio and Dosemagen emphasize that open science hardware has “enormous potential,” in that it “can foster mission-oriented, multiscale collaborations among academia, civil society, governments, and industry,” but note that the barriers are significant too. As they outline, policy support is needed, not just to support the creation and use of open science hardware, but to address the questions that come along with it—questions that are central to science itself, but that open science hardware brings into fuller view. As a few of many examples: Who decides what tools and data can be used for research, and how? What will foster public trust in science? How should institutions engage with people that use science to address questions on their own terms?

Public policy communities are circling around this conversation, but it hasn’t quite found its home in government. We wouldn’t expect the phrase “open science hardware” to mean much (for example) to a scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency interpreting data from an air-quality sensor, or to a program officer in one of the National Science Foundation’s science and engineering directorates. “Open hardware” as a label—for both a set of tools and an approach to tool development and use—is both too abstract and doesn’t quite do it justice. As with many topics in science policy, figuring out how to talk about it is essential, and should be a next step.

Senior Program Associate

Wilson Center Science and Technology Innovation Program

Julieta Arancio and Shannon Dosemagen raise practical and philosophical issues critical to the future of science. In particular, they highlight the tangible and costly issues surrounding access to and repair of scientific hardware. At well-funded research institutions, the costs of scientific equipment and service contracts are seen as costs of doing business. Globally, however, equipment costs and access to service contracts are significant blockers to broadening participation in the practice of science and accelerating innovation. The good news is that basic laboratory equipment, such as microscopes, tools, and reagents for molecular biology, can be made and maintained locally. Indeed, it is often cheaper and faster to do so, and in the process builds local capacity and expertise.

The Gathering for Open Science Hardware works as a convening entity for the Global Open Science Hardware community. GOSH has operated as a key hub for the community reframing how researchers, funders, and the public see scientific hardware. Today, in the midst of multifaceted global upheaval, the blockers to an open source approach to scientific hardware and equipment seem anachronistic. We have perhaps never experienced higher global interest in the process and promise of science. Simultaneously, wars, the pandemic, and economic disruptions make tools and equipment increasingly difficult to access for many.

Open source scientific hardware (supported by local communities of practice) saves money, sets conditions for accelerated regional innovation, and opens access to the field of science. Arancino and Dosemagen make a clear case for the cultural and scientific return on investment for investing in open source hardware for science. But even the commitment of scientists is not enough. They call on a wider community of stakeholders—government and private funders, universities and university technology transfer offices, nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations—to consider how their practices may incentivize or block open source hardware for science. This speaks to a wider issue across the scientific community. When the norms and practices of scientific communities are out of alignment with community values and goals, it is rarely possible for that community alone to make change.

Open source scientific hardware (supported by local communities of practice) saves money, sets conditions for accelerated regional innovation, and opens access to the field of science.

And there is some recent good news on this front. The Open Source Hardware Association, with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, is now inviting applications to its Open Hardware Trailblazers Fellowship. The one-year fellowship provides up to $100,000 to individuals who are actively leading the development and application of open hardware within universities. The goals of the program are to recognize and connect a peer cohort of these leaders, and to create a library of resources representing best practices in open source hardware in academia.

It is with optimism, then, that I join Arancino and Dosemagen’s call for stakeholders to consider access to locally developed and maintained equipment and hardware as critical to the global future of scientific research. Examining the role that stakeholders and institutions play in reinforcing exclusionary norms is the first critical step in coordinating a shift in the structural and cultural incentives that stand in the way of a robust, global, innovative, and equitable scientific research community.

Executive Director

Code for Science & Society

Julieta Arancio and Shannon Dosemagen make a compelling case for the value of open source hardware in global science and call for a broad-scale culture shift in research, policy, and funding that will allow “more people in more places to do science.” What we need, they argue, are policies that incentivize investments in open source hardware, funding that targets design and development of open source research tools, and institutional commitments from university technology transfer offices to move away from patenting and toward open source adoption.

I fully endorse this vision of a more accessible, transparent, and just science. But let’s be clear: the open-source model of research and development they describe represents a significant departure from the science system we currently have. Changing the status quo will not be easy. Today’s science system is geared toward market-based approaches to R&D that too often privatize public resources and privilege individual and corporate profits over community and ecological well-being. The powerful academic, government, and industrial institutions dominating the system structure research, innovation, and access in ways that directly constrain the very sorts of cultural changes the authors are advocating.

The open-source model of research and development they describe represents a significant departure from the science system we currently have. Changing the status quo will not be easy.

The set of concrete tasks Arancio and Dosemagen outline to bring about a broad embrace of open source culture in science is an important step along the longer transformational road ahead. Even more encouraging is the organizing work that these and other scholar-activists are doing to advance their vision through organizations such as Gathering for Open Science Hardware, Open Environmental Data Project, Public Lab, and Environmental Data Governance Initiative. These networked organizations represent elements of an emerging science democratization movement whose diverse constituency spans a wide range of academic disciplines, activist and maker cultures, and geographies.

To date, the movement seems to have built momentum through a technology-forward approach focused on “making and doing”—building tools and training communities to use those tools to address local problems. Over the long term, the movement will need to develop a broader strategy of collective action. Such a strategy should be nimble enough to respond effectively to opportunities or hurdles that emerge on the ground, but also coordinated across allied disciplines and movements to secure broad and lasting institutional change.

The Science Advocacy Movement Building School exemplifies the kinds of additional organizing strategies that are needed and how this might work. Organized through the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Science Network, the school trains scientists to be “advocates” for inclusive and just science policy and research practice. The school’s broader goal is to build movements within science-based and science-adjacent organizations to transform those institutions from the inside out—a mission that complements efforts to bring open source culture to science, to democratize knowledge, and to work collectively for social change.

Professor of Sociology and Environment and Society

Brown University

He is a member of the Working Group on Science Advocacy at the Union of Concerned Scientists

Cite this Article

“Open Science Hardware.” Issues in Science and Technology 38, no. 3 (Spring 2022).

Vol. XXXVIII, No. 3, Spring 2022