Open Science Hardware contributes to aligning the research agenda with societal needs

Source: anokarina

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 Julieta Arancio, CENIT-UNSAM and Fair Tech Collective, Drexel University

Open science hardware (OSH) is a term used to describe tools for science with a design that is openly licensed and available for anyone to study, modify, reproduce, distribute. It’s also a term used to name the practice of making those tools in a collaborative manner, an heterogeneous movement of people pushing for its adoption, and a young field of research. In this post I introduce how national-level adoption of OSH can contribute to aligning the science agenda with societal needs.

Governments and funding agencies have been prioritizing research with “societal impact” for over a decade. However, there is evidence of a disconnect between research produced and research that is useful for policy makers and communities around the world (Sarewitz and Pielke, 2007, McNie, 2007, Bozeman and Sarewitz, 2011). Some examples include health research (Evans et al, 2014), obesity research (Cassi et al, 2017), agricultural research (Ciarli & Rafols, 2019), among others.

OSH adoption can contribute to minimizing this gap between demand and production of science in three ways. First, by enabling the emergence of local, highly contextualized research questions that are not particularly favoured by current research incentives, but reflect “societal needs” better. Second, by providing a very concrete way for scientists and non-scientists to collaborate in the making of the research process, making the results more useful. Last, by producing highly adaptive tools for knowledge production that change as the demand for science, actors and contexts also change. I provide below some examples of OSH initiatives that illustrate these points, currently ongoing in different parts of the world.

OSH practice enables the emergence of highly contextualized research questions that wouldn’t otherwise see the light. Gorgas tracker is a Peruvian project that aims to study malaria dispersion associated with human movement in indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon. Led by early-career researchers, the project had been originally given a very small fund, aimed at students’ initiatives. The research team couldn’t use commercially available trackers due to their cost, lack of local repairing options and no resistance to the local weather conditions. As a result, the team decided to build their own OSH devices, which allowed them to adapt it to the needs of their users and the study, generating greater adoption. The published results of their community-scale study ended in the incorporation of human movement as a new line of work in the national policy for malaria control, and the creation of the Health Innovation Laboratory at Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia.

OSH practice opens a possibility for communities and scientists to collaborate in traditional and unexpected ways. Vuela is an OSH initiative born in Chile-Argentina, aimed to build open source drones for community science. The work with the communities resulted in low-cost, repairable, easy to fly drones. However, some enhancements were needed in order to turn the drones into science instruments. In 2019, an academic grant allowed the team to develop workshops with agricultural scientists working at official research institutes in Latin America, who modified the community design to make the drones suitable for research. These workshops allowed researchers to build, repair and fly these new drones by themselves, avoiding expensive and time-demanding import restrictions. The fact that the designs are open, plus the great “translation” and documentation work done by the organizing team, allows other non-academic actors to re-appropriate the new design for their own purposes.

OSH practice produces highly adapted and evolving designs, materializing the living dialogues between users, developers and manufacturers of science tools. Open Flexure is a transnational OSH initiative producing 3D printed research-grade microscopes in Tanzania, originally developed in the UK. The developer team at University of Bath worked together with STICLab Makerspace in Tanzania to adapt the production of the microscopes to local conditions and needs. SayansiScope, the Tanzania fork of Open Flexure, is a locally accessible version currently produced and repaired by the makerspace. The main users are laboratory technicians working in malaria diagnosis at the Ifakara Health Institute in Bagamoyo, Tanzania. The technicians inform the makerspace of any problems or modifications they need, which have already resulted in easier to use versions of the microscope.

These examples of OSH practice show that scientific knowledge is actively in demand by a variety of actors in the most diverse settings. OSH practice calls for attention to the need for a distributed, enabling approach from STI policy, one that recognizes that the complex challenges we are facing can’t be addressed only considering one dominant perspective. Alternative ideas and questions need to be able to materialize, be easily modified, shared, and appropriated in context.

For these to happen, we need different people in contact with the process of producing science and technology. OSH practice already lowers the entry barrier to the knowledge production process, generating a very concrete, material meeting point for very different actors to dialogue. It mostly achieves so relying on voluntary efforts of hybrid researcher-activists; it could achieve much more with policy support.

References

Cassi, L., Lahatte, A., Rafols, I., Sautier, P., & de Turckheim, É. (2017). Improving fitness: Mapping research priorities against societal needs on obesity. Journal of Informetrics, 11(4), 1095–1113. doi:10.1016/j.joi.2017.09.010

Ciarli, T., & Ràfols, I. (2019). The relation between research priorities and societal demands: The case of rice. Research Policy, 48(4), 949–967.

Evans, J. A., Shim, J.-M., & Ioannidis, J. P. A. (2014). Attention to Local Health Burden and the Global Disparity of Health Research. PLOS ONE, 9(4), e90147. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0090147

McNie, E. (2007). Reconciling the supply of scientific information with user demands: an analysis of the problem and review of the literature. Environmental Science & Policy, 10(1), 17–38. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2006.10.004

Sarewitz, D., & Pielke Jr, R. A. (2007). The neglected heart of science policy: reconciling supply of and demand for science. environmental science & policy, 10(1), 5–16.

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