A special open session at a recent ACM Europe Council meeting held at the Royal Society in London included a panel discussion chaired and moderated by former ACM president Dame Wendy Hall on "The Future of Computer Science Research in Europe."
Most of the panel, which included representatives of government, industry, and academia, addressed weaknesses in Horizon 2020, the largest research and innovation program ever mounted by the European Union, in which the EU pledged to invest nearly 80 billion euros (about $110 billion) through 2020 in order to ensure Europe's global competitiveness in research and innovation. As noted in the Information Society Technologies Advisory Group (ISTAG) Working Group on Software Technologies report "Software Technologies: The Missing Key Enabling Technology," the Horizon 2020 plan identified numerous "key enabling technologies" but failed to include software development as one of them.
Hall said Horizon 2020 addressed "lots of computing, but it was all in service to other subjects," rather than including any specific emphasis on computer science or software development. "Actually, there’s huge amounts of research to be done in computing; this is not a done deal. This underpins everything that happens in the world, and we need to take notice of that."
Chris L. Hankin of Imperial College, who also is on the European Commission Directorate General for Communications Networks, Content & Technology (DG Connect) Advisory Forum (CAF), addressed the Digital Agenda for Europe, the EU's strategy to help digital technologies deliver sustainable economic growth to "reboot Europe's economy." As the first of seven flagship initiatives under Europe 2020, the EU's strategy to deliver sustainable and inclusive growth, Hankin said the Digital Agenda "aimed to double ICT (information and communication technologies) R&D (research and development) spend from 5.5 billion (euros) to 11 billion (euros) by 2020, and Horizon 2020 is a big contribution toward realizing that.
"I think it’s really the responsibility of groups like ACM Europe that that kind of investment is properly directed and achieves the kind of impact that the Digital Agenda for Europe foresaw."
Robert Madelin, EC DG Connect’s director general, said that while "we never, as bureaucracies, do exactly what we’re told … but I think we’re going in the right direction, but the ‘right direction’ has to be more explicitly open to cooperation upstream with different interests, and it has to be more engaged with ordinary people and issues and telling them a story that will get them excited as well."
Paola Inverardi, the first female Rector of the University of L’Aquila, Italy, and that nation’s representative to the EC for ICT, says Horizon 2020 "to some extent reduces ICT and computer science to an ancillary focus." Research devoted to ICT under the plan is limited to high-performance computing, which she says is "a small part of the problem. It might be important to Europe or for some industries in Europe, but it’s just a small piece and I think that is too little."
Referring to data from the High-Level Vision 2030 document products by industry association ARTEMIS late last year, Inverardi said, "the projection in terms of the jobs in software and services for Europe is around 8.9 million," compared to less than a million working on semiconductors and other computer-related hardware across Europe. "We have a mass of people working on the soft part of ICT, and I think that we need to take care of their future."
Microsoft Research Connections vice president Tony Hey stressed the importance to the future of teaching computer science, which he explained is far more than simply learning to code; "you’ve go to know what you’re going to code, you’ve got to know about algorithms, you need to know a lot more than just writing a program."
At the primary/secondary school level, Hey said, computer science needs to taught in such a way as to "try and stimulate young people into the potential of science." At the university level, "we really have to excite people in universities that this is really a key skill, and if you do this, there will be jobs, and there will be prosperity for your country, and for you."
Hey said there is "a huge research agenda in computer science," and that "multidisciplinary computer science can make a difference, to the environment and to health and we can really solve some of the problems of diseases and personalized medicine and so on, and we’re also looking at projects on tornado prediction, fire prevention… and how you manage water, how you actually work about the aquifers being reduced," and more.
However, he added, "to me, from the perspective of industry, from the research agenda for computer science, it seems absolutely incredible if you don’t have a serious computer science research agenda in Horizon 2020. That’s where your future is going to be; it seems incredible."
Andreas Reuter, managing director of the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies, said, "I think funding agencies should not primarily try to fund directions of research, no matter how many expert panels have contributed to those definitions. They should rather address the environmental conditions, political, legal, economical infrastructure, that will foster leading-edge research and will support the take-up of research results by industry and society."
-- Lawrence M. Fisher is Senior Editor/News for ACM Magazines
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