Mittwoch, 7. September 2016

New low-cost opportunities for science

Competition for funding in science is stiff and tends to get stiffer as the number of PhD graduates explodes, together with reduction in government research funding when crises strike, for example. While crowdfunding is a way to overcome this problem, even this alternative is likely to become very competitive. Scientists need to find low-cost alternatives in order to continue making good science. Fortunately, prospects have never been better in this field. Here I examine two new technologies that can help scientists to conduct their research at much lower cost than inside the traditional pathway. They are open-source hardware and scripting.

Open-source hardware

Open-source hardware consists in machines that have their blueprints freely available. Therefore, they can be reproduced by anyone with the means to build them. Nowadays, this has been more accessible than ever. Microcontrollers, like Arduino and Raspberry pi, (which are themselves open-source, by the way) allow people with elementary knowledge on electronics to build devices. At the same time, 3D printers allow low-cost fabrication of customized parts. Joining microcontrollers and customized 3D-printed parts, production costs can be really low. As a consequence, there is a plethora of devices which have their blueprints openly available on the internet, and that can be built at a very low cost. Many of such devices are specifically designed for use in the laboratory, like syringe pumps and spectrophotometers. Others not necessarily, like robotic arms. In any case, they can all be used in laboratory contexts.

The main advantage of using open-source hardware compared to commercial instruments is the cost: open-source hardware can cost less than 10% of similar commercial instruments while performing exactly the same task. Thus, for some cases even crowd funding may not be necessary: a few hundreds of dollars can be enough to fund a research project. It must be understood that the lower cost of open-source devices does not mean that their quality is inferior to their commercial counterparts. Especially in science, devices are vastly overpriced. This is not necessarily greed: the market scale in science is small when compared to that of the general public, and thus manufacturers need to charge high prices or their business collapses. This means that a device with the same technology of a common home printer, like many autosamplers, for example, can cost a hundred times or more than the printer. What happens many times is that some commercial devices can only be used together with others from the same manufacturer by design. In such case, scientists are hostage of the situation and need to purchase the expensive accessory even knowing that more affordable alternatives exist, like those based on open-source hardware. This brings us to the second technology that helps scientists to save money in the laboratory: scripting.


Scripting is a kind of programming. Without delving into technical details, scripting can be seen as an easy variety of programming, easy enough to be promptly accessible to people without time to devote to learn complex subjects, which is the case of most laboratory technicians or scientists. The main way by which scripting can help scientists save money in the laboratory is by enabling compatibility between devices from different manufactures, regardless of their originally designed purpose. Scripting allows that because it acts at the software, and not hardware, level. From a very simplistic angle, scripting is a kind of sophisticated scheduling: the tasks performed by a given instrument can be synchronized with those performed by another, provided that both are being controlled by a single computer (or group of connected computers). Scripting power resides in its simplicity: with scripting, it is possible to control mouse clicks and keyboard inputs. Therefore, scripting effectively substitute a person controlling the computer, and repeat her actions over and over.

The problem of lack of compatibility between scientific instruments is an old one. The response of the industry has been the proposal of standardization of scientific instruments, but this has never come true. The main reason for the failure of standardization is that, differently from scripting, it acts mostly at the hardware level by modifying the instruments themselves. Beyond being a complex task, which involves professionals from diverse backgrounds, standardization costs money both for manufacturers and for users. In contrast, scripting is entirely free (AutoIt, for example, is a free scripting language that allows control of mouse clicks and keyboard shortcuts) and easily accessible. In addition to that, standardization necessarily creates a “club”, where insiders have the control of who can enter or not. This is a grave obstacle that hampers the adoption of the amazing devices developed in the explosion of creativity enabled by recent developments in open-source hardware, for example.

Democratization of science

These are exciting times for scientists. Crowd funding enables anyone with a good idea to make it real. Open-source hardware lowers the cost of devices by more than 90% of what they cost just a few years ago. Scripting makes these devices work together, and also together with commercial devices. More than ever, stunning technological advances can be a part of scientific discovery even in the most modest laboratories. These are times of true democratization of science.

New low-cost opportunities for science

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