To set ethical standards, Europe needs to lead on innovation
by Jan Palmowski
The European Commission wants to allocate €15 billion (£13.4 billion) from 2021 to 2027 to the digital, industry and space cluster in the second, challenge-led pillar of Horizon Europe, the continent’s next research and innovation framework set to launch in 2021.
It’s a big budget, but it has to support research and innovation in a range of critical areas, including artificial intelligence, high-performance computing, manufacturing technologies and space.
How can we prioritise research in areas that are critical to Europe’s future scientific and industrial competitiveness? It is a crucial question as the commission launches the strategic planning phase for this cluster, which will determine the orientations for Horizon Europe’s work programmes in its first four years.
Europe’s four main political parties have agreed that we need a human-centric investment in new technologies. And Europe has a unique capacity to help set global standards, but research on ethics, societal needs and new legal frameworks can only be effective if Europe’s technological capacity is world-leading.
Europe must offer new solutions in AI to support healthcare, logistics, and smart industry while ensuring that it is human-centred. And as new materials and products are developed, it is important to ensure that these are welcomed by those for whom they are intended.
While meeting new challenges, Europe’s industry should contribute towards achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, including those focusing on environmental sustainability.
If computers use a growing amount of energy (currently at 7 per cent of world energy consumption), research and innovation into advanced computing must ensure that increased capacity is achieved alongside sustainable energy consumption, through improvements in hardware (new materials and circuit designs), operating systems (energy-aware resource management), networking (such as fog computing), and algorithms (for big data classification).
Environmental sustainability must also be a key concern in manufacturing, for example through exploring how additive manufacturing can lead to a reduction in industry components by 50 per cent by 2035, or how intelligent product design can help improve the product life cycle.
Environmental sustainability, a clear priority of the new European Parliament, must also be a dominant concern in space research. We need to address the lack of reliable and up-to-date climatological data in many regions worldwide, in part owing to the decline of expensive ground-based monitoring infrastructure. Investment in space research can help us mitigate the effects of climate change, such as hydrological extremes.
A third strategic goal for research and innovation must be Europe’s sovereignty and the autonomy of its citizens. Here there is a range of concerns. Because rare earth elements and metals, which are essential components in electronic devices, do not originate in Europe, it makes Europe dependent on other parts of the world and vulnerable to the effects of trade wars.
It is critical that we develop alternatives that can be used in products such as permanent magnets and electronic devices. Meanwhile, ensuring the security and privacy of citizens must be paramount in the development of applications based on AI and big data. And we need to ensure that we sustain Europe’s dominance in advanced computing as a leader in developing alternative computing methodologies.
The strategic research priorities for Horizon Europe’s digital, industry and space cluster point to three conclusions for all challenge-driven research in Horizon Europe.
First, research and innovation must be connected to what citizens need, or are willing to accept. Researchers should be allowed to challenge existing expectations because the results of breakthrough research (and innovation) are, by definition, unforeseen. Still, research and innovation will become much more effective, and much less wasteful, if societal questions are integrated into research design and implementation.
The expectations for developing interdisciplinary solutions are higher than ever. This will be a methodological, practical and organisational challenge – in the design of the programme and implementation of the research. Horizon Europe must ensure that it does not compromise the depth of scientific knowledge that it supports, while finding synergies between disciplines to solve problems.
This will strengthen and embolden scientists working in areas such as artificial intelligence, space, manufacturing or advanced materials.
Finally, a central strategic question for the Horizon Europe programme is: what should be funded through the programme? Where is public funding of greatest value?
The answer is clear: public funding must go to research that no private company will fund, but whose results have great potential to address the greatest challenges facing society. Private investors may be reluctant to fund research where the potential for application is still uncertain, including fundamental research into new materials or newer fields such as spintronics and photonics.
Research at the early stage of discovery is precisely where the public funds for Horizon Europe must be invested, to maximise its complementarity with private investment in research and innovation.