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Low-Cost and Open Source Tools: Next Steps for Science and Policy

Date & Time

Feb. 1, 2021
3:30pm – 5:00pm ET



Foldable and 3D printed microscopes are broadening access to the life sciences, low-cost and open microprocessors are supporting research from cognitive neuroscience to oceanography, and low-cost and open sensors are measuring air quality in communities around the world. In these examples and beyond, the things of science--the physical tools that generate data or contribute to scientific processes--are becoming more inexpensive and more open.

Recent developments, including those related to the extraordinary COVID-19 response by maker and DIY communities, have demonstrated the value of low-cost and open-source hardware for addressing global challenges. These developments build on the capacity held by individual innovators and community-based organizations, as well as government and policy initiatives that have spanned at least two presidential administrations. When considering past developments, where are we today? As we move into a new presidential administration, what are the possible futures for low-cost and open tools for science that enable elevated impact on science and society?

Questions about this event can be directed to the Science and Technology Program through email at or Twitter @WilsonSTIP. Media inquiries may be directed at Erin Rohn at 


  • “Our website—it’s a repository that people can share from […] but we’ve also created web tools that allow people to upload their own data that will generate 3D printable file formats. So kind of eliminating that barrier going from atomic coordinates of a protein structure, to something that’s printable."

    “When I think back to — had I had access to open hardware—the things, the experiments that I could’ve done or ways that I could’ve done it maybe more efficiently is really exciting to me.” 

    “I think where open science comes in, in relation to these repositories, is building application programming interfaces which will make these interoperable, so that data from one source can be pulled into another and they can be found across the web.” 

  • “Now, instead of $100 million or more to put something in orbit, it can be done for $100,000 or even less, so it’s become sort of the price of a car to get your own satellite in space. In the last 10 years a ton of universities have done it first, and now there’s a bunch of start-ups doing it."

    “Being open about it, and open-sourcing everything—especially in the academic realm where we try to publish everything—helps a lot and has definitely led to us working with other people at other universities.”

    “It’s often the case that it’s easier for us to redo it from scratch ourselves and know what we’re doing than it is to get someone else’s code or design to work, because of poor documentation. It’s absolutely—it’s almost more important than the work itself.”

  • “There’s another open-source sensor project that we funded that uses Arduino and they’re getting very accurate soil moisture readings […] and these sensors cost about $17 so that’s kind of amazing.”

    “I think that the open source hardware paradigm is absolutely essential because then you don't have licensing issues."

    “All of our projects are required to follow open-science rules. They—all of the software is open-source, all the hardware is open-science compatible. They’re releasing all of the data — that’s all required in the solicitation.”

    “One of the things that we find in NASA—in big data—is we make all our data available, we have a series of these data centers […] around the country and they make petabytes and petabytes of data available […] it’s weird in that the access problem for developing countries and under resourced institutions and things— its not about getting the data, its about being able to download it and use it—its too big.”

  • “It is extremely important to nurture and to enhance the science policy society dialogue that is really building on trust and that can advance science also so it really benefits society as much as possible.” 

    “From the UNESCO’s perspective, open science really is this movement to transform and democratize the entire scientific process. As I said it allows scientific information, data, and outputs to be more widely accessible and more reliably harnessed […] For UNESCO we do see open science as a real game changer to bridge the science, technology, and innovation gaps between and within countries.” 

    “Open science also can have potentially unintended consequences in—maybe even—increasing this gap between those who have and those who have-not.” 

    “The recommendation is intended to really provide this international framework for open science policy and practices that is cognizant of the regional differences in open science perspectives and it recognizes the specific challenges of scientists and different open science actors—particularly in developing countries—and that it contributes to reducing the digital technological and knowledge divides existing between and within countries.”

  • “Between 2010-2011 communities such as the one I’m involved in—Public Lab— and Safecast were established, and this is when we really began creating and applying open hardware and the communities that surround open hardware to support people faced with disasters such as the BP oil spill and the Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown.”

    “3 key categories of recommendations emerged. The first is learn, so that we can identify and change the structures and processes that affect wider production and adoption of open-science hardware […] The second is support, so that we can create sustainability for open-science hardware […] And then we grow the communities so that we can increase support and mentorship for new members, we advocate for open science hardware within established institutions and ensure that it is supported by policy.”

    “With a new U.S. administration in place that’s highlighting the importance of scientific integrity and decision-making, coupled with a commitment from administration leaders to ensure that science agendas connect to societal priorities, we need to create a policy culture that matches our drive for technology and innovation and considers usability in tandem with open. That is why open hardware needs key policy attention now.”

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Event Summary | Low-Cost and Open Source Tools: Next Steps for Science and Policy

An overview and summary of the above event, illuminating key themes and problem statements.

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This project is an initiative of the Wilson Center's THING Tank. From DIY microscopes made from paper and household items, to low cost and open microprocessors supporting research from cognitive neuroscience to oceanography, to low cost sensors measuring air quality in communities around the world, the things of science -- that is, the physical tools that generate data or contribute to scientific processes -- are changing the way that science happens.

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Publication | Stitching Together a Solution: Lessons from the Open Source Hardware Response to COVID-19

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