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European Commission responds to the FSFE's information request for Horizon 2020


The European Commission Directorate-General for Research and Innovation responds to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request about the use, development and release of software under Horizon 2020 - submitted by the FSFE on January 9, 2017.

With this FOI request, the FSFE directly aimed at shedding light on how much money is spent on the use and purchase of proprietary software licences through the Horizon 2020 funding for the beneficiary projects. Respectively, it intended to figure if and what kind of data is collected, apropos of Free Software licences. The FOI request followed the publication of the FSFE's position paper for the endorsement of Free Software and Open Standards in Horizon 2020 and all publicly-funded research.

However, the response by the Commission revealed that no information is being collected on how the EU funds are being spent, when it comes to the software used and developed by the beneficiary projects within Horizon 2020:

"[...] we checked if the requested information existed and the competent Commission services informed us that the European Commission does not systematically collect information about open source software used or developed under Horizon 2020 grants, as this is not a reporting requirement in the Horizon 2020 legal basis. Consequently we are not in a position to provide you the information that you are looking for. The same applies to data concerning Horizon 2020 projects paying licence fees for software or developing software on their own."

Breaking down the EC's reply

The EC is justifying the lack of information with the argument that "it is not legally mandatory" to collect data concerning the use and acquisition of software licences.

According to the Article 14(1) of the Regulation (EU) No 1291/2013 establishing Horizon 2020, particular attention in the framework shall be paid to the development and application of key enabling and industrial technologies as well as future and emerging technologies; and shall contribute to the Digital Agenda for Europe initiative. Regarding this particular point, the interim evaluation of Horizon 2020 shall assess the efficiency and use of resources, with particular attention to cross-cutting issues and other elements referred in the Article 14(1). Software is no doubt falling under all of the points that Horizon 2020 is supposed to focus on when it comes to both industrial and emerging technologies, as well as part of the Digital Agenda for Europe. The absence of monitoring the use of resources Horizon 2020 projects are allocating to the use and development of software in Research and Innovation will not allow to assess the efficiency and use of resources of Horizon 2020 in its Interim evaluation.

Indeed, in the first Annual Monitoring Report 2014 which focuses on the implementation of the first year of the programme, information regarding the share of EU financial contribution to the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Research and Innovation was missing. According to the second report for 2015, however, preliminary data show that over one fifth of the EU funding in Horizon 2020 contributes to ICT Research and Innovation.

What "no information" means for Free Software and Open Science

The absence of data about the use of software within Horizon 2020 beneficiary projects makes almost impossible the accurate estimation of the amount of both proprietary and Free Software, being used or developed under Horizon 2020 grants.

Taking into consideration the fact that nowadays, scientists irrespective of their field of study depend on software in order to successfully conduct their research, it is indisputable that almost every beneficiary project spends a considerable amount of the hand-out grant in the purchase of software licences. The fact that the EC does not collect data on the spending of public money for software licences disregards an essential part of the modern research.

Consequently, without relevant data, Horizon 2020 monitoring and evaluation processes cannot draw safe conclusions. Critical factors, such as the re-use of software being developed with Horizon 2020 funding, or the costs for re-purchasing the same licences cannot be scrutinized and therefore, cannot lead decision-makers to optimised funding solutions. Albeit, the most significant complication is the fact that the EC is not in position to prove with a degree of certainty that Open Access and subsequently Open Science, two of the Horizon 2020 most fundamental principles, are implemented in practice. As already argued in the FSFE's recent position paper, Open Science can neither be achieved nor be sustainable in long-term without Free Software being its chief constituent.