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Promoting innovation and growth through Horizon 2020

Written by  and Eszter Bakó

The European Commission published a Green Paper to launch a public debate on the key issues to be taken into account for future EU research and innovation funding programmes. FSFE decided to contribute and provide input to this process.

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With this paper, FSFE would like to support the development of the Horizon 2020 Framework Program. The present briefing presents suggestions on how the program should be structured so as to maximise the innovation and social utility generated from European funding. We would like to emphasise the contribution which Free Software researchers, companies and developers can make to the future growth and digital security of Europe. We make the case for co-funding valuable Free Software related Research and Development projects, as this approach will both further strengthen a key area of Europe's ICT sector, and will provide benefits to Europe's citizens, companies and public bodies while promoting small and medium-sized enterprises.

About FSFE

Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) is an independent, non-profit, charitable organisation dedicated to Free Software, the basic tool for an inclusive, innovative and secure society. FSFE maintains that the freedoms to use, study, share, and improve software are critical to ensure equal participation in the information age. FSFE is financed purely through donations. Most of those donations come from small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and individuals. Donors are listed on FSFE's website.

Strategic importance of Free Software and Open Standards

Research and innovation are key driving forces of social and economic prosperity. Europe and the rest of the world are facing unexpected challenges requiring new, innovative solutions. The threatening dependencies to cope with exist on the information technology level as well. The Europe 2020 strategy declares that global challenges intensify and urges answers not to let Europe lag behind in the international competition. Thus Free Software is of increasing strategic interest to the European Union. In consequence, Research and Development activities concerning European Free Software projects should benefit from European Union co-funding for reasons including those outlined below: Free Software is a key driving force for the IT industry in Europe and the world. It is also a technology area where Europe is clearly in a position of global leadership. Today's international competitiveness in general depends in big part of High Performance Computers (HPC). According to recent statistics, the main operating systems of these HPC are based on Free Software.1

A large share of people making available these basic tools, Free Software developers live in Europe, and often work in the small and medium-sized enterprises that form the backbone of Europe's economy. European co-funding for their work will of course promote research and development, as it is intended to. Yet if the results of this work are made available as Free Software, Europe's citizens, companies and public bodies will be able to directly share in the benefits. And thus the long-term sustainability of the project results becomes possible.

To help Europe to deliver economic, social and territorial cohesion by tackling fragmentation of EU-produced technologies, Free Software and open standards are the basic tools. The importance of 'Open specifications' is for example already acknowledged by the European Interoperability Framework (EIF) for European Public Services as means for a pan-European interoperable administrative infrastructure. Social inclusion in a very digital based global environment can also be implemented with more emphasis on ICT education facilitated by reachable Free Software tools.

Interests in future framework programme

Like previous framework programs, Horizon 2020 will have a significant influence on the direction of research and development in Europe's ICT sector. We would like Free Software to be considered in a horizontal fashion throughout the program. For FSFE, there are six areas of interest with regard to Horizon 2020:

  1. Application criteria
  2. Research in Free Software: which topics should be supported?
  3. Research about Free Software: which topics should be supported?
  4. Education for an 'Excellent science base'
  5. Accessibility of research results
  6. Evaluation criteria for proposals

Application criteria

Though most large ICT firms are involved in Free Software, the space is dominated by SMEs and individuals. These are often the most dynamic actors in the ecosystem.

In order to gain the participation of the most innovative players, the Horizon 2020 program must make a point of being accessible to organisations which are too small to handle the substantial bureaucratic overhead that is so far a standard feature of FP7 projects. We suggest that a simplified application and funding process should be put in place for project participants receiving less than a given amount of funding. As an example, a project partner receiving 10,000 EUR in funding could be offered a simpler route to approval than a project partner receiving 150,000 EUR.

Research in Free Software: which topics should be supported?

The fundamental rights and freedoms of natural persons and in particular their right to privacy is a key question in the EU. The goal of Free Software developer community is to stand up for this fundamental right by providing citizens with complete control of the systems they are using. Those systems respect their privacy, provide a high degree of security against malicious attacks, and deliver on the promise of the computer as a universal machine. Even though Free Software is widely used today, it does not always put users in control. Centralised services such as Facebook or Gmail are almost fully based on Free Software; yet the companies running them are in full control of those systems, leaving users at the mercy of corporations that can be hard to bring to book in case of abuses and privacy breaches.

This is why FSFE advocates 'distributed systems'. With social networks such as the Diaspora project, there are no central nodes that could control communications between users. With such services, a user's social network truly belongs to herself, rather than a corporation providing the service.

Horizon 2020 should promote research and development of distributed systems, implemented in Free Software, in order to give Europe's citizens full control of their communications.

An important foundation for distributed systems will be strong 'encryption' that is easily usable and widely implemented. Free Software provides the certainty that an encryption program contains no back doors, as the code can be fully inspected.

In order to provide a more positive environment for software developers and hardware makers to operate in, Horizon 2020 could facilitate economic growth by promoting research into *open hardware*, i.e. hardware where the user may decide to run any software she sees fit. This would be particularly interesting in the mobile space.

Research about Free Software: which topics should be supported?

In order for public funds to be spent in a targeted fashion, recent data and analysis are essential. Horizon 2020 should therefore back studies looking into current participation in Free Software projects, with a perspective of identifying those areas that would benefit most from European co-funding. This should include an investigation of the barriers to participation in Free Software projects.

A second interesting area of research would be public sector procurement practices around Europe, where they refer to software. Studies should provide an impartial assessment of the status quo, and should develop best practices in order to make software procurement in Europe truly competitive.

Education for an 'Excellent science base'

Education, developing talent in Europe will be crucial for Europe's future, in particular technical education. The Digital Agenda: Europe's strategy for a digital economy by 2020 emphasises the need for improved digital competences in formal education and training systems. Therefore Horizon 2020 should find ways of encouraging students to engage in STEM subjects. The program should also promote projects and mechanisms aimed at providing students at school and university levels with a solid foundation of technical knowledge.

Free Software will be essential to this effort, as it encourages users to learn about the systems they are using, and to change them to suit their needs. Thanks to its modern licensing practices and the availability of source code, Free Software is able to provide users with an immersive understanding of technology which non-free software simply cannot match.

Accessibility of research results

The Horizon 2020 program will enable a huge amount of research and development in Europe. In order for the program to reach its full potential, it is essential that others will be able to build on the results generated by the project participants with public funding. This is not only a question of fairness towards the European taxpayer, but also a matter of economic efficiency. Projects should not have to reinvent the wheel if others have already done part of the work that is required. Encouraging reuse of project results should therefore be a central element across Horizon 2020. In order to enable the reuse of project results both within and outside Horizon 2020, it is essential that foreground (as defined in FP7) should be published, under licensing conditions which enable the public to use, study, share and improve on those results. For results consisting in software, Free Software licenses should be mandatory or at least strongly encouraged. For other results, we recommend licenses such as Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike, or Creative Commons Attribution.

We also note that despite the express exclusion of software from patentability in Europe, software patents continue to represent a substantial threat to the growth of Europe's software industry. In order to alleviate this problem, project participants should be encouraged to undertake defensive publications of their software-related inventions. This would go a long way towards protecting the innovations of the project participants, and the investment of Europe's taxpayers from being monopolised. Instead, both the project participants themselves and others would be free to monetise the technologies in question to the best of their abilities, thereby greatly contributing to a more dynamic technology landscape in Europe. The Commission might find it convenient to make available a tool to make defensive publications easy.

Evaluation criteria for proposals

Project proposals should be evaluated on their merits. The benefits which the project will provide to Europe should be at the center of the evaluation process. Advantages provided for the innovating community and more globally citizens.

The development and success of a scientific project depends upon open disclosure of information and verification of results. Free Software should be part of this process. Computers are used massively in all fields of science, the use of open verifiable software is essential to the scientific method.

We recommend that a project's commitment to release the software produced under a Free Software license such as the GNU GPLv3, the GNU AGPLv3 or the Apache 2.0 license should count strongly in the application's favour. Through this commitment, the results of work undertaking with public funds will become available to European taxpayers.

The advantage should be compounded if the applicants demonstrate that they have set up a process to actually distribute the software in question, and make outside contributions possible. This will be a key contribution to the long-term sustainability of the project results.

Making knowledge available to the general public where that knowledge has been developed with public funding should be the rule, rather than the exception.

Concluding remarks

FSFE believes that a more pragmatic approach should be taken in the development of Horizon 2020 to boost innovation. A broader participation by the simplification of application process would be essential to encourage disadvantaged small but dynamic actors, SMEs. While keeping mind the potential need of security and interoperability in the digital environment, the new framework project should support research in Free Software topics and examination of areas that could also benefit from the strategic advantages provided by Free Software. As a general rule European sustainable, competitive innovation can only come true if scientific cooperation is completely possible via dissemination of research results and their appropriate reuse . The new well thought-out framework project should ensure that there will be opportunities for important projects supported by EU co-funding which are, with regard to their sustainable, inclusive character, of significant value for Europe.