Open hardware is economically efficient and generates a massive return on public investment

Diagram of how to Fund Scientific Equipment from Science for All: How to Make Free, Open Source Laboratory Hardware in Scientific American. The full chart available at bottom of this blog.

This blog is part of a series on open hardware and key messages for public policy. Read the introduction and access other #OHpolicy blogs here.

By Joshua M. Pearce, Richard Witte Professor of Materials Science & Engineering, Professor Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering and
Director of
Michigan Tech Open Sustainability Technology (MOST) Lab at
Michigan Technological University

Both free and open source software (FOSS) as well as the distributed digital manufacturing of free and open source hardware (FOSH) have shown particular promise among scientists for developing custom scientific tools. One 2013 exploration, Open Source Lab:How to Build Your Own Hardware and Reduce Research Costs, analyzed how free and open source hardware provides scientists with substantial savings via downloaded substitution value. The downloaded substitution valuation uses the number of times that a FOSH design is accessed on the Internet times the savings for FOSH to quantify the value of the design.

If building blocks of open hardware design are treated as investments, science can expect a high return on investment (ROI) when many researchers replicate the design. For example, a case study of a syringe pump released under open-licenses, resulted in ROIs for funders ranging from 100s to 1,000s of percent after only a few months. Since 2013, the open source design paradigm has grown by orders of magnitude. Today there are examples of open source technology for science in the vast majority of disciplines, hundreds of freely available high-quality tools, and several resources dedicated specifically to publishing research related to this growing paradigm (e.g. the Journal of Open Hardware).

This approach continues to drive economic savings for scientists. A recent study evaluated free and open source technologies in two repositories based on economic grounds, and compared their costs to functionally-equivalent (or inferior) proprietary tools. This research considered articles published in HardwareX, a journal dedicated to FOSH and the Open Source Toolkit that houses curated FOSH articles from Public Library of Science One as well as a wide range of specialty journals. The study found that there are two enabling innovations, which help scientists and engineers leverage distributed digital manufacturing: open source electronics, like the Arduino prototyping platform, and the open source projects that provide 3-D printing, like the self-replicating rapid prototyper RepRap. The Arduino and associated electronics are useful for automating a wide range of scientific equipment. RepRap 3-D printers can make bespoke mechanical components for developing tool libraries for optics or syringe pumps as well as become scientific tools in the form of microfluidics prototypers, chemical handling systems and 3-D microscopes.

Fig. 2. Open-source 3-D Platform for Low-cost Scientific Instrument Ecosystem

Across a wide range of scientific tools, there is overwhelming evidence that open source technologies provide economic savings with an average of 87% compared to equivalent or lesser quality proprietary tools. These economic savings increased to 89% for those that used Arduino technology, and to 92% for those that used RepRap-class 3-D printing. When combining both Arduino and 3-D printing, savings averaged 94% for free and open source tools over commercial equivalents.

These results provide strong evidence for financial support of open source hardware and software development for the sciences. Given the overwhelming economic advantages of free and open source technologies, it appears financially responsible to divert funding of proprietary scientific tools and their development in favor of FOSH. The return on investment for even simple scientific tools that can be made open source and replicated thousands of times can provide an ROI of 100s to 1000s of percentage points! In fact governments should strategically invest in open source design development for the most important research tools in the country. This potential is evident in a case study of Finland, where Finland’s science funders could save up to 27.7m€/year (the equivalent of 33.2 million USD per year) with FOSH. Why would governments fund the development of proprietary tools if they provide less flexibility for scientists, and cost so much more? Why would scientists buy proprietary equipment when custom equipment that enables complete control is available for a fraction of the cost?

Fig. 3. Open QCM

To gain a better understanding of just how beneficial an open source approach is to scientific equipment — consider that the average funding rates for both the NIH and the NSF are under 10%. These means for every scientific grant that is applied for, less than 10% of the scientists get the tool they need. As FOSH scientific tools cost about 90% less than proprietary equivalents, investing in the development of a FOSH tool can provide that tool for around 90% of the scientists instead of only 10% for the same amount of funding! The bottom line is that funding FOSH makes high-quality scientific tools much more accessible.

Fig. 4. Diagram of how to Fund Scientific Equipment from Science for All: How to Make Free, Open Source Laboratory Hardware in Scientific American.

Journal of Open Hardware, an Open Access initiative run by the Global Open Science Hardware community and published by Ubiquity Press.

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