From Open Source to Open Research: Horizon 2020

Last week I took part in a meeting at the European Parliament entitled “Horizon 2020: Investing in the common good”. Here's the background: Horizon 2020 is the EU´s framework programme for research and innovation. This conference...


Last week I took part in a meeting at the European Parliament entitled "Horizon 2020: Investing in the common good". Here's the background:

Horizon 2020 is the EU´s framework programme for research and innovation. This conference will explore how EU funding can promote economically and socially sustainable innovation models with the aim of more openness, easier accessibility and higher result-oriented efficiency. The conference will examine what it means to treat knowledge as a public good in policy making and how this should affect future EU funding schemes for research and innovation.

Horizon 2020 naturally has its own extensive Web presence:

Horizon 2020 is the financial instrument implementing the Innovation Union, a Europe 2020 flagship initiative aimed at securing Europe's global competitiveness. Running from 2014 to 2020 with an ‚¬80 billion budget, the EU's new programme for research and innovation is part of the drive to create new growth and jobs in Europe.


The adoption of Horizon 2020 will:

Strengthen the EU's position in science with a dedicated budget of ‚¬ 24 598 million. This will provide a boost to top-level research in Europe, including an increase in funding of 77% for the very successful European Research Council (ERC).

Strengthen industrial leadership in innovation ‚¬ 17 938 million. This includes major investment in key technologies, greater access to capital and support for SMEs.

Provide ‚¬ 31 748 million to help address major concerns shared by all Europeans such as climate change, developing sustainable transport and mobility, making renewable energy more affordable, ensuring food safety and security, or coping with the challenge of an ageing population.

As you can see, there is some pretty serious money involved, and the principal aim of the conference was simple in the extreme: to try to ensure that the people who paid for that ‚¬80 billion budget – European citizens – enjoyed its results. That might sound absurd – surely that goes without saying? - but sadly it's the underlying approach of Horizon 2020 that is absurd.

The first line of the draft version of the official Horizon 2020 document states unequivocally that the results of any work done under this scheme belong not to the public but to the organisation that obtained them using EU monies. In other words, the usual socialisation of costs, and privatisation of profits.

My presentation was an attempt to show the benefits of opening things up, both in terms of publishing the results of the Horizon 2020 programme, and also in terms of participation where relevant.

My starting point was that the old, closed kind of innovation was being replaced by an new open and digital form. Traditional innovation was centralised and top-down, with little sharing outside the narrow confines of the research group, with no scalability as a result.

Open innovation, by contrast, was decentralised and bottom-up: coders are able to participate in Linux from all around the world, and also able to make suggestions as to its features and future direction. Sharing is not just possible thanks to the Internet, it is absolutely key, and means that open collaboration projects do indeed scale, because they can keep on adding more people, unlike traditional methods.

I noted that this approach has borne fruit in the shape of GNU/Linux's dominance in key areas of computing: supercomputers; companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter, all of whom depend on open source for their infrastructure; and mobile in the shape of Android. All of these demonstrate that however humble the origins of GNU and Linux – both born pretty much as the result of single individuals – the end-result is something that has conquered the world in various ways.

I then looked at three applications of this kind of open collaboration: open access, open data and open research. The first two I've written about before, but open research is still a relatively new topic for me. In this context, I spoke about the fascinating Galaxy Zoo project.

As the project's history explains, the original problem was how to classify a million pictures of galaxies taken by the robotic telescope of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. There just weren't enough scientists to do this in a reasonable time, and so some researchers in Oxford had the idea of throwing it open to everyone. It was a huge success – not just in terms of achieving its original objectives, but even making original discoveries.

In total, an amazing 250,000 people have taken part, creating in the process a new kind of large-scale open research that anyone can contribute to. And it has spawned other such projects in the fields of space, climate, humanities and nature.

Finally, I noted that science is not only becoming more open, it is becoming digital: there are few research fields today that don't depend upon computers. That means that there is probably software written specifically for the projects concerned. If that project is funded by the public – thorough the Horizon 2020 programme, say – then I suggested it ought to be made freely available under an open source licence. This is an aspect that few people think about currently, but as computers move to the heart of science it will become one of the most important forms of research output.

As usual, I've embedded my presentation below. Real gluttons for punishment can even watch a recording of the proceedings; my talk begins around the 38' 30'' mark. In the question and answer session afterwards, I try to persuade some of the senior European Commission officials to share all results (papers, data and software) of the Horizon 2020 programme more widely – without much success, I fear...

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