The Sloan Foundation Awards GW a Grant to Encourage Open-Source Software

The funds will be used to create an Open Source Program Office.

September 12, 2023

Geneva Henry (left) and Lorena Barba

Geneva Henry, left, and Lorena Barba are co-P.I.s on the Sloan Foundation grant to establish an OSPO on campus.

The nonprofit Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has awarded the George Washington University a grant of $685,000 to establish an Open Source Program Office (OSPO) on campus.

Open-source software is shared for anybody to use, download and sometimes make modifications to it. Such technology accelerates the growth of knowledge by making technology transparent and reproducible. Open-access educational resources are not published for profit. Tools like these not only enable collaboration, but also increase the control of users over their work.

NASA and more than a dozen federal agencies have declared 2023 the year of open science. The embrace of open-source technology is widening in the corporate sector as well.

The grant’s co-principal investigators are Lorena Barba, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS), and Geneva Henry, dean of libraries and academic innovation and vice provost for libraries and information technology.

“What we want to do with GW’s OSPO is coordinate and support open-source software across campus,” Barba said, “and to help researchers discover and embrace open-source software and contribute to creating a culture of open collaboration and knowledge sharing.”

There are two basic models of open-source software, Barba said. In the licensing model, intellectual property is free for others to use and modify for their own purposes. The other model, the open development model, means not only that software is released for others to use, but that the work done in writing it is public. (GitHub is a platform that enables this.)

“Slowly these things start growing in communities and become an incredibly fertile ground for distributed knowledge creation and innovation,” Barba said. “That's why we have some tools that have become incredibly impactful. Think about WordPress, Django, Python, R, and even the Android operating system on your phone—all of that is open source.”

There is already significant interest in open-source software at GW, Henry said, and the OSPO will bring together interested scholars, facilitate new projects and inform the community about opportunities and developments in the field.

“There's a philosophy around open source that very much aligns with our beliefs at GW around sharing knowledge,” Henry said. “What scholars care about is getting that knowledge out there. There's a lot of open-source software development going on at GW, but it’s scattered. We haven’t had a way for the community to find out about each other. The OSPO is going to spur new initiatives and new ideas as researchers get to know each other. We want to educate our students and our faculty about this, and also help them be successful when they're writing their grants, given the mandates by grant agencies that are coming out.”

Federal funders are moving toward open-source technology, too, Henry said, and increasingly make grants contingent on open sourcing.

When Barba and Henry were working on their grant proposal for the Sloan Foundation, they centered on the importance of the culture of collaboration that grows around open-source software projects.

“It's not just about software,” Barba said. “When you participate in an open-source project, you start learning about ways to collaborate and ways to coordinate with others in teams that are distributed in a very effective way. But there are many reasons why tech companies have embraced open-source software. It fosters innovation. And companies can access a global talent pool and collaborate on projects unmatched by traditional closed software models of the past.”

The sharing ethos fostered by an OSPO is not new at GW, Henry said. In 2015, the Faculty Senate passed an Open Access Resolution to make their publications accessible more quickly (and inexpensively) than before, when students had to wait for articles to be published in traditional ways.

“Open-source software development is like an alternative to capitalism,” Barba said, “because everybody is giving their work away in the knowledge that the work that we're creating together is more than what any one of us individually can do. It is a model for collaboration and innovation that is very unique, that has produced an incredible amount of innovation. For example, the artificial intelligence boom in the last decade or so is very greatly influenced by open-source software initiatives.”

A new OSPO website will soon be launched. In the meantime, people can go to GW’s main library site to find information about popular workshops on the programming language Python and other topics, or email [email protected] to express your interest.