I recently read the Global Open Science Hardware Roadmap published by the Gathering for Open Science Hardware (GOSH). It lays out a real program for promoting Open Science Hardware (that is, roughly speaking, lab equipment and field instruments.) I strongly support it, and have signed the manifesto petition.
As it states, if we can make science equipment more accessible we can democratize, and, even more importantly, strengthen amateur and professional science globally. “Accessible” is a vague word but it comes down to lowering the cost and empowering people to make modifications.
There are many small engineering and science firms that make instruments. These firms tend to be labors of love, and they may feel threatened by this. I think this market, or field of endeavor, is a perfect example of a market which does not fit the simple theory that you learn in beginning of an microeconomics textbook. When you have a commodity, the price is determined by “supply curves” and “demand curves”, and where they cross determines the price and volume of the market. Exactly where the curves come from is a little hazy, but it is mostly true in a commodity market like grain.
But science hardware is not a commodity. In a seeming paradox, the more the field is democratized, the larger the market becomes, and the more money can be made. Competition, which lowers prices in a commodity market, tends not to lower the price in these highly inventive markets, but rather to expand the market itself. Simon Wardley has partially addressed this process elegantly with his “Wardley-Duncan” maps.
The Roadmap talks about the importance of quality standards (p. 36) and aligning with industry standards. It also mentions creating common data pools of shared information (p. 19). However, I would like to articulate this more strongly, as we have tried to do in the Freespireco Project.
The Free-libre Opens Source Software (FOSS) world has pioneered a bag of tricks, and two of them are modularity and data standardization. Modularity of hardware multiplies its openness. If a design is legally open (that is, published with good documentation under the CERN OHL), it is legally modifiable. However, the more modular it is, the more modifiable and extensible it becomes in practice. In fact, the more modular it is, the more business opportunities are created.
A similar idea is standardization of data and interfaces. Here the Electrical Engineers and the Arduino universe of products in particular are an excellent exemplar. By publishing open standards and interfaces, you can create ecosystems of products. The Roadmap articulates this as point 6 on page 19. However, we must admit something: it takes effort to modularize a hardware design, and it takes effort to publish a standard. These tasks are less exciting than doing the science, and less rewarding. I think GOSH, Universities, and other organizations can make up this deficit by explicitly encouraging and recognizing the publication of open, versioned standards and paying particular attention to modularity.