When creating, using, and buying tools for agency science, federal agencies rely almost entirely on proprietary instruments. This is a missed opportunity because open source hardware — machines, devices, and other physical things whose design has been released to the public so that anyone can make, modify, distribute, and use them — offer significant benefits to federal agencies, to the creators and users of scientific tools, and to the scientific ecosystem.
In scientific work in the service of agency missions, the federal government should use and contribute to open source hardware.
Open source has transformative potential for science and for government. Open source tools are generally lower cost, promote reuse and customization, and can avoid dependency on a particular vendor for products. Open source engenders transparency and authenticity and builds public trust in science. Open source tools and approaches build communities of technologists, designers, and users, and they enable co-design and public engagement with scientific tools. Because of these myriad benefits, the U.S. government has made significant strides in using open source software for digital solutions. For example, 18F, an office within the General Services Administration (GSA) that acts as a digital services consultancy for agency partners, defaults to open source for software created in-house with agency staff as well as in contracts it negotiates.
Open science hardware, as defined by the Gathering for Open Science Hardware, is any physical tool used for scientific investigations that can be obtained, assembled, used, studied, modified, shared, and sold by anyone. It includes standard lab equipment as well as auxiliary materials, such as sensors, biological reagents, and analog and digital electronic components. Beyond a set of scientific tools, open science hardware is an alternative approach to the scientific community’s reliance on expensive and proprietary equipment, tools, and supplies. Open science hardware is growing quickly in academia, with new networks, journals, publications, and events crossing institutions and disciplines. There is a strong case for open science hardware in the service of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, as a collaborative solution to challenges in environmental monitoring, and to increase the impact of research through technology transfer. Although limited so far, some federal agencies support open science hardware, such as an open source Build-It-Yourself Rover; the development of infrastructure, including NIH 3D, a platform for sharing 3D printing files and documentation; and programs such as the National Science Foundation’s Pathways to Enable Open-Source Ecosystems.
If federal agencies regularly used and contributed to open science hardware for agency science, it would have a transformative effect on the scientific ecosystem.
Federal agency procurement practices are complex, time-intensive, and difficult to navigate. Like other small businesses and organizations, the developers and users of open science hardware often lack the capacity and specialized staff needed to compete for federal procurement opportunities. Recent innovations demonstrate how the federal government can change how it buys and uses equipment and supplies. Agency Innovation Labs at the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Census Bureau have developed innovative procurement strategies to allow for more flexible and responsive government purchasing and provide in-house expertise to procurement officers on using these models in agency contexts. These teams provide much-needed infrastructure for continuing to expand the understanding and use of creative, mission-oriented procurement approaches, which can also support open science hardware for agency missions.
Agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), NOAA, and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) are well positioned to both benefit greatly from and make essential contributions to the open source ecosystem. These agencies have already demonstrated interest in open source tools; for example, the NOAA Technology Partnerships Office has supported the commercialization of open science hardware that is included in the NOAA Technology Marketplace, including an open source ocean temperature and depth logger and a sea temperature sensor designed by NOAA researchers and partners. These agencies have significant need for scientific instrumentation for agency work, and they often develop and use custom solutions for agency science. Each of these agencies has a demonstrated commitment to broadening public participation in science, which open science hardware supports. For example, EPA’s Air Sensor Loan Programs bring air sensor technology to the public for monitoring and education. Moreover, these agencies’ missions invite public engagement in a way that a commitment to open source instrumentation and tools would build a shared infrastructure for progress in the public good.
We recommend that the GSA take the following steps to build capacity for the use of open science hardware across government:
- Create an Interagency Community of Practice for federal staff working on open source–related topics.
- Direct the Technology Transformation Services to create boilerplate language for procurement of open source hardware that is compliant with the Federal Acquisition Authority and the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010.
- Conduct training on open source and open science hardware for procurement professionals across government.
We also recommend that EPA, NOAA, and USDA take the following steps to build capacity for agency use of open science hardware:
- Task agency representatives to identify agency scientific instrumentation needs that are most amenable to open source solutions. For example, the EPA Office of Research and Development could use and contribute to open source air quality sensors for research on spatial and temporal variation in air quality, and the USDA could use and contribute to an open source soil testing kit.
- Task agency challenge and prize coordinators with working intra-agency on a challenge or prize competition to create an open source option for one of the identified scientific instruments or sensors above that meets agency quality requirements.
- Support agency staff in using open source approaches when creating and using scientific instrumentation. Include open source scientific instrumentation in internal communication products, highlight staff efforts to create and use open science hardware, and provide training to agency staff on its development and use.
- Integrate open source hardware into Procurement Innovation Labs or agency procurement offices. This may include training for acquisition professionals on the use of open science hardware so that they can understand the benefits and better support agency staff use. This can include options for using open source designs and how to understand and use open source licenses.
Defaulting to open science hardware for agency science will result in an open library of tools for science that are replicable and customizable and result in a much higher return on investment. Beyond that, prioritizing open science hardware in agency science would allow all kinds of institutions, organizations, communities, and individuals to contribute to agency science goals in a way that builds upon each of their efforts.
While the U.S. government grapples with the definition of the bioeconomy and what sectors it does and does not contain, another definitional issue needs to be addressed: What does sustainability mean in a bioeconomy?
Federal clearinghouses should incorporate open science practices into their standards and procedures used to identify evidence-based social programs eligible for federal funding.
To better address security and sustainability of open source software, the United States should establish a Digital Technology Fund through multi-stakeholder participation.
Building on existing data and privacy efforts, the White House and federal science agencies should collaborate to develop and implement clear standards for research data privacy across the data management and sharing life cycle.