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Blue skies thinking: Open Science Cloud

Our Chief Executive Jo Revill recently travelled to Brussels as part of a UK delegation to discover more about the European Research & Innovation programme. Here, she tells us more about her trip and how it applies to our work.

A rather large cloud is hanging over Europe and no, I’m not referring to the political cumulonimbus caused by Brexit.  This phenomenon is something known as the European Open Science Cloud and it’s an initiative which has significant implications for scientists whatever their nationality or location.

I visited Brussels with our journal publishers, Wiley, and with chief executives from other learned societies on what is known in the jargon as a ‘doorknock’.  The purpose was to find out more about the work of the European Commission and to meet some key policymakers who hope to develop the Cloud to improve science innovation across borders. 

Going to the heart of the European Union to talk about our activities, such as our regional meetings, travel awards and communications, is always a lesson in humility; it serves as a reminder that we are, for now, just one of 28 countries and part of that much bigger whole.  


Digital single market

The European Commission’s big project is to create a digital single market – this idea forms the bedrock for a whole set of policies and ideas, all centred on using the digital economy to drive economic growth.  Despite some dispute on the need for legislation for these changes, the fact remains that this project is influencing our world and the world of our journals enormously.

For years, the focus lay on Open Access, but this is now shifting to a broader outlook in order to unlock the value of big data and to foster faster and increased innovation, while helping to fit in with the plans behind a digital single market.  Of course, it is also about competing with the US, creating jobs, and having better procurement processes.

An expert group at the Commission was set up in September 2015 to provide advice on the Open Science Cloud initiative, and last year, the Commission kicked off their Open Science Policy Platform, aimed at developing policy in eight areas, including changing business models for publishing, open data, citizen science and altmetrics.

We are witnessing seismic shifts in the way research is conducted, affecting the nature of collaboration, the sharing of early knowledge and the organisation of scientific teams.  As the innovation landscape changes, so too do the challenges for publishers and learned societies whose income largely derives from their journals.  Along with colleagues from the British Pharmacological Society, The Physiological Society and the British Ecological Society, we were at pains to explain how, as charities, our activities depend on running thriving journals whose income goes straight back into supporting our membership.


European collaboration

During our visit, we met with Keith Sequeira, senior adviser to Carlos Moedas, the Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation.  Mr Sequeira, a British science policy expert now has responsibility for taking forward much of the thinking on Horizon 2020.  He told us that this is the crunch year for deciding where the EU goes on science funding, and that they want to improve their knowledge of how investment to date has translated into discoveries, jobs and knowledge-sharing. However UK-centric we may be, across Europe there are 1.7 million researchers and 70 million people working in science and technology.  Can a database or system ever be created that would be safe and secure enough to store, share and use such a large volume of data?

We also met with Tim Figures, Head of Competitiveness and Markets within the UK Permanent Representation to the EU, who is responsible for the UK government relations with the EU bodies on single market issues. He stressed the importance of remaining engaged in constructive debate with the European bodies during the two-year period in the run-up to Brexit, and was interested in how Europe is looking to the States to understand the capabilities it needs to build through using the best data and software services to support scientific endeavour. 


Future funding opportunities

As for Horizon 2020, the Commission is now carrying out its mid-term evaluation of this framework, including investigating the impact of its nearly €80 billion investment.  Due for publication this June, it will frame the agenda for the next framework programme, lasting from 2021 to 2028.   In immunology, it’s understood that this funding stream has been enormously beneficial.   It’s helped to drive growth and jobs, brought together investigators from centres across Europe to work on research into innovative medicines in collaborative models that were previously considered very difficult. It has also helped to increase collaboration between the private and public sectors.   The British government has pledged to invest £2 billion annually into research and innovation, taking us beyond the withdrawal from the EU, but for how long will this last?

Here at the BSI we are collating examples from immunology of how the UK has benefitted from the Horizon 2020 framework.   Please do send us your examples of projects, trials and collaborations that have advanced immunological knowledge and which we can share with our European colleagues.   

My major learning from this trip is that, as societies, one action we can take is to tell Europe and our own government what science without borders means, by giving them very concrete examples of collaboration.  If we don’t tell policymakers what we are doing, we cannot blame them if we get ignored when the decisions are taken in a council chamber far from here.

Jo Revill

Chief Executive, British Society for Immunology