One Way Ranking with Research Expenditures Slows Scientific Progress

This is a guest post by Joshua M. Pearce, an online contributor to the recent November-December issue of Academe. Pearce is an associate professor in the Department of Materials Science & Engineering and the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at Michigan Technological University.

Unfortunately, the simplistic thinking that uses “research expenditures” as a proxy for academic output has become counterproductive to the scientific enterprise as I discuss in this month’s issue of Academe. This “figure of merit” for universities reduces the research output per dollar invested in several ways including discouraging the diffusion of superior, lower-cost, open-source scientific equipment.

Measuring and ranking research expenditures encourages driving them up arbitrarily – potentially reducing economic efficiency in research. In general, researchers are frugal with their hard-earned funds, but if one of the primary metrics of success is spending, acceptance of increasingly onerous overhead rates and discouragement of investments that stretch research funding are more likely. This is unfortunate, but far worse is discouraging the mass diffusion and development of open-source scientific hardware.

Scientific equipment, which is normally highly customized, low-volume specialized instrumentation, has historically been extremely expensive (read: large research expenditures and high rankings for those who use it). However, as the free and open-source process, which has so powerfully transformed the Internet, is applied to hardware, we are able to radically reduce the cost of experimental research in the sciences. This is obviously good news, but the current metric of research expenditures says just the opposite. Scientists now have an option to invest a small amount of time and money into open-source equipment rather than simply pulling out the credit card and shopping at traditional equipment vendors. As I documented in Open-Source Lab: How to Build Your Own Hardware and Reduce Research Costs, with dozens of examples from around the world, a revolution is occurring as formerly highly specialized, high-cost scientific equipment are increasingly custom fabricated in-house using digital designs, at tenfold or one hundredfold cost reductions.

For example, using a low-cost open-source 3-D printer called a RepRap, scientists can print optics lab equipment for pennies on the dollar. They can automate their equipment using open-source microcontrollers like the Arduino. An Arduino enables tools like an open-source mobile water quality testing platform, which replaces over $4000 of equipment for less than $100. Similarly, my group released a Raspberry Pi ($35 Linux computer) internet-controlled open-source syringe pump, which annihilates the cost of precision fluid handling.

Open-source scientific hardware makes it possible to stretch research expenditures much further–to accomplish the same or even superior research. Any scientific field that adopts this model will immediately gain an innovation advantage not only for equipment, but also in the ability to quickly replicate, verify, and build on one another’s experimental work. Many institutions from around the world are joining forces to accelerate science for good using open source hardware:

  • The NIH recently started a 3D printable category for custom scientific labware on their repository
  • Neuroscientists at Open Ephys develop open-source electrophysiology equipment
  •  OpenLabTools is a University of Cambridge initiative, which has released a research grade open-source microscope.
  • Sensorica is an Open Value Network that provide open source sensing and automation solutions.
  • Hackteria is a web platform and collection of Open Source Biological Art Projects .
  • Tekla Lab – Berkley’s initiative for a library of open source DIY quality scientific lab equipment.
  • The Open Space Agency is developing a range of open source automated robotic observatories (ARO) that are capable of capturing pro-level images of celestial objects.
  • And many more individual labs like the Michigan Tech Open Sustainability Technology Lab or individual projects like Open PCR release open-source equipment as a matter of routine.

We can improve the effectiveness of research funding by moving “research expenditures” to the denominator so that open-source scientific hardware development can reach its full potential. Investments now will pay large dividends in the future as science benefits from increased efficiency and innovation in every discipline.

Note: A fuller discussion of this topic may be found in the November-December issue of Academe in “It Is Time to Move Research Expenditures to the Denominator in University Metrics,” an essay by Joshua M. Pearce.

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