Thierry Van der Pyl is the new Director of ‘Excellence in Science’ at the European Commission, and with the plans for the next funding framework Horizon2020 for 2014 to 2020 still in the works, he is someone who can command a lot of attention from a room full of project leaders. Van der Pyl was at the e-Infrastructure Reflection Group meeting in Amsterdam to give the policy maker view point. “Convincing politicians means trying to get some budget,” said Thierry, an uncertain process when the EU budget as a whole is yet to be agreed for 2014.
The free and fast circulation of knowledge is a strategic challenge for the EU’s Research and Innovation Programme. They have seen success in other fields for crowd sourcing and crowd funding initiatives and the Commission feels these are also relevant for research. “Any public money going to research has the supervision of the tax payers,” said Van der Pyl. “We need to clearly show the benefits for citizens.”
Horizon2020 will put a strong emphasis on societal challenges, innovation and excellence in science. All publications coming out of public projects should be open access and increasingly this should also apply to data. Data is a foundation for innovation in Europe and industry should not only have access to scientific data but be part of the discussions about it. The citizen should also form part of this debate, to make the science more transparent and more participatory.
Under Horizon2020, the EC will pilot bringing open access to data in the same way that OpenAIRE brought open publishing for EC funded projects. Under the pilots, the idea is that any innovation can happen and no exploitation is prevented. The EC policy on infrastructures has to ask, and satisfactorily answer, three questions – what is the value of the e-infrastructure for science, citizens and innovation? This means that the right people need to be part of the discussions from the start, not as an add on at the end. Politicians must be convinced of all three elements before they will be persuaded to invest public money.
Van der Pyl urged the e-infrastructure group to be part of the discussions on wider data, for example for predicting weather, traffic modelling, improving medicine. Citizens clearly need to be involved in these sorts of discussions too because this type of data affects the citizen directly. At the moment, data infrastructures are the new kid on the block, compared to the well established networking and grid infrastructures such as GÉANT and the European Grid Infrastructure. According to Van der Pyl, the e-infrastructure landscape in Europe at the moment is fragmented into parts, divided up into individual institutions and selfish interests, siloed into different disciplines and split by national borders. And this is all at a time when the quantity of data generated by research is expanding exponentially. “All the stakeholders have to be on board, including the member states, or you won’t be able to deliver,“ warns Van der Pyl. “We are not lacking in challenges.” E-infrastructures cannot afford to develop discipline by discipline, the EC wants them to find the commonalities that serve the interests of all, and not be driven by the selfish interests of one discipline.
The challenges are well known - facing the volume of data, defining metadata, semantic searching, finding data, connecting data, curation and preservation as well as supporting open access with the associated change in culture for scientists. “We cannot do this by legislation, there need to be incentives,” said Van de Pyl. There are some complex interdependencies to resolve, between standardisation and flexibility, hard and soft standards and control versus freedom.
The EC believes the Research Data Alliance will be helpful, bringing together those who know best, and this is where the RDA needs to find the balance between top down and bottom up approaches for taking forward data infrastructures. iCORDI, a project funded by the EC has been instrumental in bringing people in to the discussions, including from the US and Australia as well as Europe. “We don’t want a club or a talk show,” says Van der Pyl. “We want to see tangible results so that we can justify it to our lords and masters.” The most important thing is to develop a common vision, not to work in silos, and to serve scientists, citizens and industry.
When questioned about the rules preventing commercial usage of the e-infrastructures, such as the GÉANT network and EGI, Thierry was clear that the EC does not make a distinction between academic and private research in terms of their usage of the infrastructure. Both groups have free access to use the resources, and in fact must use them for the e-infrastructures to satisfy the politicians. However, they must also demonstrate that they do not distort commercial competition, which in practice is going to be difficult. National rules can also cause problems for commercial providers who might want to provide resources as part of a European research infrastructure, as well as to use them.
However, even though there might still be a way to go in getting all the legislation joined up, for Horizon2020, the writing is clearly on the wall. “Horizon2020 is about inventing the future,” asserted Van der Pyl. “It is there to support good science, growth and jobs. It is not science for science’s sake.”