This is the seventh post of a series of profiles on GOSH community members who were featured in the GOSH Community Events Framework. You can access the framework, along with this profile in its original format, on the GOSH website at https://openhardware.science/gosh-community-events-framework/.
By Marcela Basch, independent journalist, Argentina. Twitter: @marbasch
Profile on François Grey, a physicist with a background in nanotechnology.
In 2009, he helped launch the Citizen Cyberlab, a partnership between CERN, the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) and the University of Geneva, dedicated to rethinking public participation in research.
As its manager, he organised hackathons and hands-on events as tools for innovation. From 2008 to 2013 he was based in Beijing, where he helped establish the Open Wisdom Lab at Tsinghua University, In 2013, organising a summer school at Tsinghua, he decided to do something different. “I had a mentor, Heinrich Rohrer, who invented the Atomic Force Microscope, different from an optical one: you can see single atoms. He got a Nobel prize for that. It was a very expensive thing, about US$100.000, and he always teased me about how much we spend on equipment and how it wasn’t necessary. He said the problem with scientists is that they often buy very expensive equipment and they don’t spend time building it, and therefore they don’t really understand what it can do. That got me thinking”, he remembers. “In 2013 he passed away. To honor him, I transformed the summer school into an extended hackathon. I told the students ‘just build an atomic force microscope’, for under US$1,000. We got some funding from the Lego foundation and that was the LEGO2NANO summer school. It was a huge success with the students, who tried to do it open source. It’s quite difficult, but it was fascinating to see the reaction around the world to the idea that students could build such a device so cheaply”.
Around that time, while teaching at New York University, he heard about the work of Public Lab with open hardware and met Shannon Dosemagen. Back in Geneva, he learnt about the open source hardware license that Javier Serrano and colleagues had developed for CERN. “Discussing with him, I started to think: ‘why don’t we do an event to get everybody interested in open source hardware?’, he remembers. “Then I took some students to the Mozilla Festival, to present LEGO2NANO, where I met Jenny Molloy and heard about her research. That’s where I realised : ‘there’s a really diverse community around open source science hardware’”.
“When people say ‘open science’, they think of open access journals, open data repositories. Open source hardware is the little brother of the movement (or maybe the little sister): few people pay much attention to it, but its impact could be immense given the amount of money, usually public, that’s spent on science hardware”, he remarks. “We had this idea to do an event, and CERN seemed a very exciting place for it, so in 2016 we organised the first Gathering for Open Science Hardware there. My main interest was saying: ‘look, this is a big part of open science and needs some attention’ ”.
Since 2016 he is also director of the Geneva Tsinghua Initiative, an education programme for the SDGs with the universities of Geneva and Tsinghua. In 2018, he proposed the Tsinghua University graduate campus in Shenzhen as venue for the third GOSH, and brought in the local experts and organisers like David Li and Ji Li. “There is a lot of interest in China for Open Science Hardware, and it was exciting to connect with Shenzhen, which is China’s Silicon Valley, when it comes to hardware”, he says.
What’s in a name?
François gave GOSH its name. “I like to come up with funny acronyms. The right name can have a huge impact and the wrong name as well, so you have to be cautious. So I was looking for something that would be a little bit the playful spirit of what I hoped the community would be like”, he remembers. “Sometimes names actually change your view of what you’re doing. Now the G in GOSH, that was for ‘gathering’ is starting to evolve to ‘global’, the ambitions are bigger. That’s fine, it’s recycling, reusing. Trying to be more than a gathering makes sense”.
“The old conference style academic science event excluded a bunch of grassroots people. So we made it different, in very pragmatic ways: we made our meals together, some people brought their children to the event. Some of my CERN colleagues, who only had planned to come, give a talk and leave, were like ‘wow this is really fun’, and just kept coming back again and again during the whole gathering. That was unique in terms of different worlds meeting”, says François. “Science is often associated with a formal academic system, but in open science and open hardware, a lot of the most exciting things are happening outside the structures, and the whole movement is challenging the establishment. This tension between establishment and non-establishment, academics and amateurs, is part of what makes GOSH unique. We need this tension. We can’t change the establishment without the help of people in the establishment.”
A sense of urgency
“There’s a sense of urgency in what we are doing. After COVID, the problems of the planet are right in front of our faces. GOSH can be part of the solution”, he points out. “A big challenge is how to keep focused on the goal of the Roadmap, ‘Make open science hardware ubiquitous by 2025’, which is hugely ambitious. Some of what we do has to really move the needle on the agenda, the community has to stay focused, keep the sense of purpose. We’re a network of influencers who should spend time trying to influence for a larger scale effect, because life is short. How do we find organisations where we could inject the GOSH DNA so that it spreads far and fast? ”
“The history of modern academic science comes from events: academies were places where you had to demonstrate your results in public so people could reproduce them, otherwise it was not science”, illustrates François. “Useful demonstration and documentation of Open Hardware needs to keep these scientific traditions. And we will need to treat GOSH events much more holistically. The big issue we have to tackle as a community is: How to get the maximum impact and influence out of future GOSH events?”