Open tools for better science

(Photo: GOSH Community, CC0, https://www.flickr.com/photos/goshcommunity/32916234003/)

Is technology neutral? It has long been argued that technology comes with embedded values. This also applies to scientific instruments, which play an essential role in research and science education, and can even be one the main drivers in some scientific fields (e.g. Genomics). But what values are embedded in the hardware used by scientists? High-tech, complex, high-quality and prestigious instruments are what scientists and science institutions usually seek. Coincidentally, these attributes are usually ascribed to science. Are those the values we want for science?

A stereotypical image of a scientist using expensive equipment (Credit: Rhoda Baer, National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, National Institutes of Health, CC-BY-NC, https://www.flickr.com/photos/nihgov/25863685900)

Science is a community endeavour, which relies on a set of social norms, principles or expectations that define a scientist’s (ideal) behaviour. In 1942, Robert Merton structured these norms in a group of four principles: communality (common ownership of knowledge), universalism (everyone is capable of contributing), disinterestedness (not for personal gain), and organized skepticism (subject to critical scrutiny and testing). What if we could have scientific instruments which represented those principles of science? What if scientific equipment were developed by the scientific community in a scientific manner? Open, community-developed, peer-reviewed, accessible scientific equipment, instead of elitist, fancy devices?

One common argument against open scientific equipment is that it is usually considered of a lower quality than their commercial counterpart. This can certainly be the case sometimes, but it is not necessarily the rule. In fact, the number of open, high-quality, research-grade instruments being developed is rapidly increasing. A good example is the MultispeQ device for plant, soil and environmental measurements, which is a professionally designed device that could rival similar commercial ones, but with the advantage of being affordable, open and modifiable (e.g., to measure coral bleaching). Also, some of the most sophisticated scientific equipment used at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN is openly licensed, and published in their own Open Hardware Repository. After all, there is sufficient knowledge and expertise in the scientific community to develop equipment capable of reaching their own scientific standards.

There are instances, however, in which research-grade quality is not necessary. This is especially true when the purpose behind is education, and being able to do-it-yourself is an objective. Simple devices can be easier to understand, and be better suited for teaching scientific principles and concepts. At the workshops organized by the Hackteria community, students build simple microscopes out of cheap webcams that allow them to inspect objects gradually from the macro to the micro scale and also learn optics along the way. Having the ability to take home their own microscope and being able to explore their environment is very empowering.

Hunting for microorganisms using a webcam microscope (Credit: Marc Dusseiller, Hackteria, CC-BY, http://hackteria.org/wiki/File:Step_7_go_hunting.jpg)

Recently a global movement for open scientific hardware has emerged, which will hopefully allow for this kind of projects to thrive. The goal this community has set itself is to make open-source hardware ubiquitous in science by 2025. This may sound like an utopian dream, but I believe it is not. And for it to become a reality more participation is needed; there is a need for people who doesn’t traditionally take part in the development process of scientific instruments. If you’ve read this far, my guess is that you are a potential contributor!

And how can you join this movement? A first step into the open science hardware world can be to simply find a scientific instrument or tool that can be useful for you (you can find many here and here), and use it. Instrument use, testing and validation by the community is already one of the biggest contributions. Also, by being able to study and modify it, it is likely that you may find a way this tool could be improved or adapted to a specific application. If not, it is possible that you could also contribute to the project documentation, through writing, translating, or even correcting typos. The next step would be to share your experience, results or hacks and contribute back to the community.

A good starting point: 3D printed micropipette (Brennan et al. 2017, http://biorxiv.org/content/early/2017/02/20/109231; image: https://github.com/Biological-Microsystems-Laboratory/micropipette/raw/master/images/gif-side-cross.gif)

Open scientific instruments allow those who were mere recipients of the tools delivered by the market to be part of the development process, focusing on the problems that need to be solved in a transparent, democratic and empowering way. But challenging this status quo is really just returning to the principles described by Robert Merton, and bringing back scientific values to scientific instruments.

Will you join us?