Earlier this year the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), Center for Open Science, and the Wilson Center held an open science policy sprint to source and develop actionable policy ideas aimed at improving scientific transparency, equity, and innovation. Some heroic editing from the FAS team (especially Jordan Dworkin and Grace Wickerson) helped transform “uh, if the government pays for hardware it should be open source” into the actual proposal below. You can see the original version in situ here.

While scientific publications and data are increasingly made publicly accessible, designs and documentation for scientific hardware — another key output of federal funding and driver of innovation — remain largely closed from view. This status quo can lead to redundancy, slowed innovation, and increased costs. Existing standards and certifications for open source hardware provide a framework for bringing the openness of scientific tools in line with that of other research outputs. Doing so would encourage the collective development of research hardware, reduce wasteful parallel creation of basic tools, and simplify the process of reproducing research. The resulting open hardware would be available to the public, researchers, and federal agencies, accelerating the pace of innovation and ensuring that each community receives the full benefit of federally funded research.

Federal grantmakers should establish a default expectation that hardware developed as part of federally supported research be released as open hardware. To retain current incentives for translation and commercialization, grantmakers should design exceptions to this policy for researchers who intend to patent their hardware.

Details

Federal funding plays an important role in setting norms around open access to research. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)’s recent Memorandum Ensuring Free, Immediate, and Equitable Access to Federally Funded Research makes it clear that open access is a cornerstone of a scientific culture that values collaboration and data sharing. OSTP’s recent report on open access publishing further declares that “[b]road and expeditious sharing of federally funded research is fundamental for accelerating discovery on critical science and policy questions.”

These efforts have been instrumental in providing the public with access to scientific papers and data — two of the foundational outputs of federally funded research. Yet hardware, another key input and output of science and innovation, remains largely hidden from view. To continue the move towards an accessible, collaborative, and efficient scientific enterprise, public access policies should be expanded to include hardware. Specifically, making federally funded hardware open source by default would have a number of specific and immediate benefits:

Reduce Wasteful Reinvention. Researchers are often forced to develop testing and operational hardware that supports their research. In many cases, unbeknownst to those researchers, this hardware has already been developed as part of other projects by other researchers in other labs. However, since that original hardware was not openly documented and licensed, subsequent researchers are not able to learn from and build upon this previous work. The lack of open documentation and licensing is also a barrier to more intentional, collaborative development of standardized testing equipment for research.

Increase Access to Information. As the OSTP memo makes clear, open access to federally funded research allows all Americans to benefit from our collective investment. This broad and expeditious sharing strengthens our ability to be a critical leader and partner on issues of open science around the world. Immediate sharing of research results and data is key to ensuring that benefit. Explicit guidance on sharing the hardware developed as part of that research is the next logical step towards those goals.

Alternative Paths to Recognition. Evaluating a researcher’s impact often includes an assessment of the number of patents they can claim. This is in large part because patents are easy to quantify. However, this focus on patents creates a perverse incentive for researchers to erect barriers to follow on study even if they have no intention of using patents to commercialize their research. Encouraging researchers to open source the hardware developed as part of their research creates an alternative path to evaluate their impact, especially as those pieces of open source hardware are adopted and improved by others. Uptake of researchers’ open hardware could be included in assessments on par with any patented work. This path recognizes the contribution to a collective research enterprise.

Verifiability. Open access to data and research are important steps towards allowing third parties to verify research conclusions. However, these tools can be limited if the hardware used to generate the data and produce the research are not themselves open. Open sourcing hardware simplifies the process of repeating studies under comparable conditions, allowing for third-party validation of important conclusions.

Recommendations

Federal grantmaking agencies should establish a default presumption that recipients of research funds make hardware developed with those funds available on open terms. This policy would apply to hardware built as part of the research process, as well as hardware that is part of the final output. Grantees should be able to opt out of this requirement with regards to hardware that is expected to be patented; such an exception would provide an alternative path for researchers to share their work without undermining existing patent-based development pathways.

To establish this policy, OSTP should conduct a study and produce a report on the current state of federally funded scientific hardware and opportunities for open source hardware policy.

  • As part of the study, OSTP should coordinate and convene stakeholders to discuss and align on policy implementation details — including relevant researchers, funding agencies, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office officials, and leaders from university tech transfer offices.

  • The report should provide a detailed and widely applicable definition of open source hardware, drawing on definitions established in the community — in particular, the definition maintained by the Open Source Hardware Association, which has been in use for over a decade and is based on the widely recognized definition of open source software maintained by the Open Source Initiative.

  • It should also lay out a broadly acceptable policy approach for encouraging open source by default, and provide guidance to agencies on implementation. The policy framework should include recommendations for:

    • Minimally burdensome components of the grant application and progress report with which to capture relevant information regarding hardware and to ensure planning and compliance for making outputs open source
    • A clear and well-defined opportunity for researchers to opt out of this mandate when they intend to patent their hardware

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) should issue a memorandum establishing a policy on open source hardware in federal research funding. The memorandum should include:

  • The rationale for encouraging open source hardware by default in federally funded scientific research, drawing on the motivation of public access policies for publications and data

  • A finalized definition of open source hardware to be used by agencies in policy implementation

  • The incorporation of OMB’s Open Source Scientific Hardware Policy, in alignment with the OSTP report and recommendations

Conclusion

The U.S. government and taxpayers are already paying to develop hardware created as part of research grants. In fact, because there is not currently an obligation to make that hardware openly available, the federal government and taxpayers are likely paying to develop identical hardware over and over again.

Grantees have already proven that existing open publication and open data obligations promote research and innovation without unduly restricting important research activities. Expanding these obligations to include the hardware developed under these grants is the natural next step.

Hero image: Crop of Andrew Carnegie, Smithsonian Open Access Collection

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