Open Source Science: Public Money, Public Hardware

Marching in Washington DC for science funding and scientific analysis in politics (source)

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: Martin Häuer, Fraunhofer Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology (IPK), DE and Open Source Ecology Germany e.V. (non-profit), DE; Paul Jerchel, Beuth University of Applied Sciences Berlin, DE; Jaime Arredondo, Bold and Open

In 2011, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), the most prominent public research center in Europe, created a free/open license for its hardware. Why? Because they found it improved their science and research. This license evolved to become one of the major licenses for open source hardware.

Science rests on the foundation of sharing and reproducibility. Any barrier to that drives the costs of science up, lowers the amount of meaningful measurements, and shuts down many people from contributing to breakthroughs, which reduces the potential of what researchers can do with public funding.

Today, science is constrained by the mainstream use of closed development for its tools. Sometimes these tools are protected by patents, which prevents the widespread adoption of scientific results outside of those actors with the financial resources to purchase them. And few of the university patents are transferred. This has two problems: it’s a source of public costs and hardly drives any income for universities. Only about 12% of university patents have been transferred at least once, and 73% of school’s tech transfer offices in the US lose money (ref).

In contrast, openness fosters resource efficiency in science. By making publicly available raw data, prototype designs, code, methods, and so on, open science improves or enables the reuse of results and multiplies collaboration beyond partnerships in grant agreements.

Hardware becomes open source when its “design is made publicly available so that anyone can study, modify, distribute, make, and sell the design or hardware based on that design” (ref).

Consequently, instead of creating vendor lock-in, open source hardware products become a platform for further innovation.

Modular open source solutions applied to scientific equipment can help create a low-cost, easy to distribute, and highly customisable ecosystem of tools, which already exists in the realms of microscopy (ref).

How open source hardware multiplies researchers’ and funders’ capacity

CERN had to venture into open source hardware to develop its capacity for large-scale research and do so at a reasonable cost. It was crucial for them to modify, extend, or maintain the tools they use, whether internally or externally developed. And open source hardware is the key to no longer being limited by the original developer or manufacturer’s capacities.

One of the main factors that led them to create the Open Hardware Repository was to avoid duplication by simply sharing results across different teams that might be working simultaneously to solve the same problem. Sharing each researcher’s achievements in the repository also results in an improved quality of work across teams. Feedback from peers, design reuse, and better collaboration with industry are also important advantages to working in an open environment.

Open source hardware can also drive huge savings for research funders. Much of the purchased equipment in universities and research institutes could be fully substituted by adequate open source alternatives which “costs only 1–10% […] of proprietary tools”. In Finland, a study shows how Finland’s science funders could save between $2.84–27.7 million a year if research hardware would be open source (ref).

Investing in open source methodology ensures that funding used to develop scientific equipment is spent only once and delivers a higher return of investment. For the cost of the materials required, it’s possible to replicate other devices. This replication saves 90-99% of conventional costs, scaling the availability of scientific equipment accessible for research and education accordingly (ref).

Enabling actors to spread discoveries

One fundamental goal of science is to create solutions that can diffuse, sooner or later, into practical adoptions making people’s lives better, longer, or more sustainable.

But “the inflated costs of highly-specialized proprietary scientific equipment restricts access to research tools for experimentalists throughout the world […]. This challenge is most acute in regions with low scientific expenditures as the countries that spend the most on scientific tools and researchers to use them have the highest scientific outputs […]. However, even in the wealthy countries […], rarely do research labs have unrestricted access to the best research tools or as many of them as necessary to optimize their rate of discovery and innovation. Lack of access to the optimal research tools because of costs slows the rate of scientific and technical development in every field” (ref) and prevents other actors like communities of smaller companies to collaborate or do field testing.

Open source hardware has proven a powerful tool to disseminate scientific results in society and education, at a low cost or in a way that is accessible.

After most patents on 3D printing expired in the early 2000s, the University of Bath created an open source printer which could print most of its own parts. This silently kicked off the rapidly evolving 3D printing market as we know it today, driven by actors fully independent from the university.

When CERN was confronted with minute data latency that corrupted their measurements in the geographically distributed computing network, they developed White Rabbit as an open source solution. It is now commercialised in diverse economic sectors including finance, telecommunications, energy, Internet of Things (IoT) and air traffic control (ref).

Like these numerous other examples prove the capacity of open source hardware to facilitate, tech transfers can contribute to widespread economic and social welfare. Despite this evidence, open source hardware is still not a principal with mainstream adoption in industry or science. However, initiatives like the Open Source Software Strategy by the European Commission show an ongoing paradigm shift. Its implementation and governing principles aim to “make collaborative working methods the de facto standard for the Commission’s work internally and with others”.

Conclusion

There’s no science without sharing. Without intensified sharing, including on a hardware basis, crucial scientific sectors may not scale sufficiently to respond to increased capacity demand in current and future crises. Likewise, adoption of such solutions in the field (e.g. by industry) is particularly hindered when solutions are proprietary. Proprietary approaches don’t seem suited to create a comparable impact at a reasonable costs. Especially in comparison with open source approaches where costs are voluntarily shared across adopters and developers.

Supposedly we want to solve problems in a fast, broad, sustainable, and (cost-)efficient way. In that case, open source principles provide extraordinary leverage, whereby the effect can ripple across our different systems.

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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