Open Science Hardware for Realising Globally Equitable Knowledge Production

  • Pen-Yuan Hsing University of Bristol; Gathering for Open Science Hardware
  • Brianna Johns Gathering for Open Science Hardware
Keywords: open science hardware, open source hardware


Physical hardware underpins research in many disciplines. From computing devices, scientific instrumentation, and biological reagents, to remote sensing satellites, researchers rely on hardware to explore and understand the world. However, research equipment is typically based on closed source (i.e. proprietary) hardware, whose designs are legally restricted, preventing others from studying, building, or modifying them. These restrictions cause several problems such as: lack of reproducibility; duplication of effort; forced obsolescence; and higher costs.

Crucially, the inefficiencies of closed source hardware reinforce global inequities. This is because the design and manufacturing of research equipment is often monopolised by producers in the Global North. Restricted access to hardware designs mean that only authorised dealers and technicians are allowed to sell or maintain equipment. These services are often unavailable to, or prohibitively expensive for, researchers belonging to historically marginalised communities outside of the Global North.

Building on the success of open source software, open source hardware is defined as any physical artefact whose “design is made publicly available with explicit, legally binding freedoms for anyone to study, modify, distribute, make, and sell the design or hardware based on that design”. Open science hardware is an emerging field of practice which studies and applies the principles of open source hardware to research contexts. In 2021, it was formally recognised as a key component in the UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science. Open science hardware provides many benefits compared to its proprietary counterparts. This can include cost savings of up to 87% (Pearce, 2020) and proportional to how often it is replicated; quicker iteration of designs; and adaptation to local needs in underserved communities.

Since the 2010s, open science hardware has been developed and used in diverse domains from environmental monitoring, and lab automation, to microscopy. In addition to academics, open science hardware is commonly built by citizen science communities and adapted for different purposes. Other practitioners of open science hardware include educators, social innovators, or artists.

In this talk, we provide an overview of open science hardware and the problems it solves. We also provide successful examples of open science hardware projects that serve to not only do good science, but also address global inequities. The talk also presents the Gathering for Open Science Hardware, an international network working towards the adoption of open source hardware across research lifecycle.