Haves and also have nots need to locate an improved way

Many efforts are making science more open and accessible; they are mostly concentrated on issues that appear before and after experiments are performed: open access journals, open databases, and many other tools to increase reproducibility of science and access to information. However, these initiatives do not promote access to scientific equipment necessary for experiments. Mostly due to monetary constraints, equipment availability has always been uneven around the globe, affecting predominantly low-income countries and institutions. Here, a case is made for the use of free open source hardware in research and education, including countries and institutions where funds were never

In 2013, Eve Marder [1] expressed concerns about the increasing costs of equipment necessary to do state-of-the-art research in the field of biology and the decreasing amount of funding available to be shared between an ever-growing number of labs and researchers. Even though the funding situation in the United States has improved since 2013, a closer look shows that the investments accumulated an inflation of 9% in the period between 2012 and 2017 [2] and a budget increase of 4.5% and 6% for the National Institutes of Heath and National Science Foundation, respectively [3] [4], while the Environmental Protection Agency has had a cut of 4.5% in the same period [5]. The concerns raised by this situation have been expressed for quite some time in many places of the world, where lower investment (as a proportion of gross domestic product [GDP]) in science and education makes research conditions suboptimal and access to bleeding edge technology and tools difficult. Now, in times of shrinking funding, however, this difficulty is being felt by researchers in places earlier considered safe havens of science. One of the fears Professor Marder expressed is that we might return to the “old days,” when only a privileged few men were able to do research.

A major reason for high prices in scientific equipment is related to the way innovation, technological development, and new knowledge generated inside universities and research institutes are introduced to the world: to make them commercially interesting and to allow their development outside academia, they are protected using legal mechanisms such as patents and/or copyrights, which are then licensed/sold to companies. Although this system enables universities and companies to work in collaboration and leverage each others’ strengths, it ends up locking away research results funded with public money. Not only is this morally debatable, but it also does the following:


As a consequence, researchers can now use freely available software for most of their work-related tasks (e.g., office suites, statistics, or data analysis packages), which in turn helps reduce research costs  Drill Bits and frees resources for other expenses (as well as improves research quality and scientific outputs [13]—a more detailed description of the benefits of using freely available initiatives can be found in the following paragraphs). For Eve Marder’s main concern—the lack of funds to buy expensive equipment—a solution was still lacking. While this is worrisome, the increasing affordability of electronic systems to the general public should provide relief to the problem, as they can be used to assemble tools in an open source way in which everyone is free to use and improve designs based on their specific needs. Smartphones, for example, carry powerful central processing units (CPUs), camera, microphone, and an array of sensors, which makes these ever-present devices excellent tools for recording, analysing, and visualizing data [14]. One popular application is smartphone-based microscopes, in which a glass bead or other inexpensive plastic lens (normally found inside a laser pointer) can be placed in front of the smartphone camera for very large magnifications (see Table 1 for examples). A brief online search for “phone microscope” will guide the reader to a wealth of similar projects. The quality of such simple microscopes allows users, among other things, to image blood samples for diagnostics [15], with costs in the range of US$5–US$20 (assuming users already have a smartphone with a camera).


In contrast to this, the initial cost for a “scientific-grade” optical microscope is in the range of thousands of dollars, with prices rising steeply for more complex designs, severely constraining access to such a fundamental tool. As such devices are core to scientific investigations, there have been several open source models beyond just the “basic smartphone hack;” some examples can be found in Table 1. They have different capabilities and different levels of complexity, but all of these freely distributed models have two key features in common: (i) they are produced with “off-the-shelf” components, which are mostly cheap and easy to get, and (ii) their designs and bill of materials are available online, allowing anyone to build as well as customize/improve them, depending on specific needs and material availability [16]. These features are nothing more than the translation of the open source software philosophy to the world of hardware (a more rigorous definition can be found on the Open Source Hardware Association page [17]). Like in software, the adoption of this philosophy in research and education has deeper implications, which have been debated in reference to specific fields (analytical chemistry [18], engineering [19], life sciences [20], and nanotechnology [21]) as well as concerning research in general [22,23]. The common implications of adopting free open source hardware (FOSH) are summarized below: