“It's our duty to share the discoveries we make”

Andrew Oates and Georg Fantner © Alain Herzog 2021 EPFL

Andrew Oates and Georg Fantner © Alain Herzog 2021 EPFL

Two EPFL scientists – Georg Fantner, an associate professor, and Andrew Oates, the dean of the School of Life Sciences – recently published an article on how open science can be leveraged further in order to share discoveries and know-how with the scientific community.

“We need to share all of our work, not just the findings,” says Georg Fantner, the head of the Laboratory for Bio- and Nano- Instrumentation at EPFL’s School of Engineering. His message is clear: scientific knowledge should be spread as widely as possible. Fantner and his colleague Andrew Oates, the dean of the School of Life Sciences, have written an article appearing in Nature on how the principle of open science could be applied more broadly.

Designing, building and inventing

Today’s scientists publish their research findings in specialized journals. But to get to those findings, they often have to design and build intricate testing and measurement equipment. “Our PhD students spend an inordinate amount of time fabricating different kinds of instruments for their thesis projects,” says Fantner. “But once their theses are completed, the instruments usually just gather dust because nobody else knows how to use them.” That means that if other scientists want to replicate the experiments or take the research further, they have to start from scratch and create their own instruments. The years of work that a PhD student did can get left by the wayside.

While scientists discuss their methods in the articles they publish, that discussion doesn’t contain enough detail for someone else to replicate a custom-built instrument – modern research equipment is far too complicated. Fantner and Oates therefore put forth the idea of “open-hardware instrumentation,” where scientists share the designs of all the instruments and other tools they use in their experiments. “The truth is, most of the equipment built in a laboratory is never commercialized and therefore never used by other researchers,” says Oates. Equipment that has proven to work well can be marketed and distributed by a private company, but it can take several years for such an innovation to become publicly available.

Towards open laboratories

Fantner and Oates therefore believe that open science needs to extend beyond just publishing research data. They would eventually like to see open laboratories where all aspects of a research project are shared with the entire scientific community. “It’s our duty to share the discoveries we make,” says Oates. “The question is, what’s the most effective way to do it?” One possible answer is through open-hardware workshops, like the ones that Fantner began holding in few years ago. During these week-long workshops, participants from around the world learn how to build a special microscope developed in Fantner’s lab. Demand for these workshops is high and the waiting list is long.

Going even further

Research equipment isn’t limited to hardware. Oates feels it’s also important to share wetware – that is, the equipment biologists use to produce cell cultures – in order to achieve a genuine open laboratory. “At EPFL,” he says, “we have to go beyond the standard communication channels and position ourselves at the cutting edge of open science, technology and knowledge dissemination.”