Interviews Magazine Open Science

CONNECT Interview: Dr. Stefan Hanslik

Stefan Hanslik
Dr. Stefan Hanslik

Dr. Hanslik, in your role as the national representative for Austria in both the steering and governing boards of EOSC and the EuroHPC Joint Undertaking, as well as your chairmanship of the e-IRG, you are uniquely placed at the heart of major developments supporting science in Europe. What do you think are the main challenges European science is facing?

It’s a tricky question to answer. First of all, let me give you my gut feelings and my opinion on that. I’m always thinking about the whole system we have in Europe when it comes to research and research infrastructures. Here, I come to the first semantic opinion I have, because nowadays we know that when talking about infrastructures, e-infrastructures should be equal in value. It’s an old tradition to separate those two, and I personally think that it’s time now that the infrastructures and e-infrastructures are one group here. When I remember my work as a scientist and talk to scientists working now, there is simply no research work possible on both sides without the e-infrastructures. And on the other hand, it’s not possible without the necessary larger infrastructures for experimentation. This is not domain-specific; it goes over all domains nowadays. So, I see that the main challenge in Europe at the moment for the scientific world is to cope with this new situation. All scientists are producing enormous amounts of data. The big challenge is processing and how to keep and deal with all this information. The main proportion of scientific data generated in Europe is funded publicly, so sharing and keeping it public is crucial.  All of this has a prominent role. A lot has been developed in the last 20-30 years on both the infrastructural and policy levels. Open Science has become an integral part of European policy architecture, for example. The main challenge we face now is how to deal with this new situation. The role of the e-infrastructures is a big issue because it often works in the background, without much promotion or policymaking help.

That’s nice to hear because it leads into my second question. As you know, EOSC and EuroHPC are driven by the Member States and policymakers in Brussels. However, infrastructures like GÉANT and the NRENs have developed from a bottom-up approach, guided by their constituents to create service offerings for researchers and educators. How do you see these top-down initiatives working with bottom-up initiatives seamlessly? Do you think it will be an easy transition, or do you see challenges?

I think this is part of one of the big European challenges we have to solve. As you said, for example, EuroHPC is top-down driven, and we had to react to it. Even in its development, there’s an adaptation to pre-existing bottom-up initiatives. The concept of a federated data infrastructure in Europe and exascale computing, which is the main part of EuroHPC, also align. Major initiatives are coming together, and we see this with many initiatives from the Commission, stakeholders, and Member States, as they align their efforts. Exascale computing isn’t just to help run EOSC for example; it’s also for specific scientific problems. It’s a European prestige project to demonstrate our strength globally – something that we should support.

In the last five years, we’ve seen scientists and policymakers realise that these initiatives depend on a common understanding of what needs to be done to keep ahead in scientific work compared to other continents. The Commission and Member States are making efforts to align interest groups like ESFRI, EOSC, and EuroHPC. Discussions in the joint undertaking support have shown attempts to integrate activities and avoid duplications. Fragmentation is still a problem in Europe, partly due to the funding system. We should consider larger projects involving more people, as the scientific community is well connected. Smaller projects can be more administratively burdensome without significant distinctions from larger ones. Thinking about bigger European undertakings is a favourable approach.

Your message is clear: communities in the scientific field know each other, and larger projects involving a wider base of stakeholders tend to yield better results.

Indeed, this is evident in major European initiatives like EOSC and EuroHPC, where many individuals overlap between the groups, and the community itself is interconnected. While there may be technical differences and varying domains, digital infrastructures are essential and should be used across the board. I’m convinced that this will gain traction among users.

You mentioned that researchers and policymakers are keenly aware of Europe’s position compared to other continents. Initiatives from the European Commission reflect this awareness. Regarding digitalisation and the green transition in the research sector, how can the e-IRG facilitate this and how might international cooperation support it?

The e-IRG has the advantage of not being solely limited to the 27 EU Member States; it has a broader scope that includes associated countries. Moreover, looking at the groups and bodies within the e-IRG, especially its strong connections to e-infrastructure groups like others, it is more engaged with the international world. The efforts in the data sector, such as the FDO forum demonstrate this international involvement. The scientific community is inherently international, and this will further scale up due to Europe’s exceptional initiatives. For example, the EOSC is an initiative unique to the European Community. Initiatives like the FDO align with the open science concept and contribute to the international aspect. Since my involvement with the EOSC model, it has always included an international perspective because it was clear from the start that this couldn’t be limited to Europe alone. Building a World Wide Web of FAIR digital objects must consider the global context.

In the past, the terminology used in Europe was “sovereignty,” and it later shifted to “autonomy.” On one hand, Europe appears to be working to secure itself more than before, even in the realm of science. However, science is inherently international, and researchers collaborate across borders. Many initiatives aim to be outward-looking. I understand this might not have a straightforward answer, but how do you perceive these two aspects playing out in Europe today? Is there more enthusiasm for transcontinental research and education, or are these initiatives becoming more inward-looking?

I’m not entirely certain if I can provide a definitive answer, but I have the impression that a significant aspect, particularly when viewing Europe as part of the global scientific community, is a kind of competition over data. We recognise that scientific data holds immense value, and this has led to concerns about protecting it from external influences. This is especially relevant as scientific data is often publicly funded, and there is a responsibility to safeguard them from misuse by inappropriate institutions, for example. So, the idea of establishing something like a Schengen space for scientific data in Europe is appealing. However, a Schengen space doesn’t imply complete isolation; there should be some level of transparency with other continents.

Regarding your question about international collaboration and whether it’s still valued, I believe it is. In today’s world, it is impossible to engage in scientific work without taking a broader perspective. The question is, how can Europe remain a competitive player in this global scientific landscape? Some argue that Europe lags behind, with the Americans as innovators and the Chinese as imitators, but I don’t find this view convincing.

Let’s move on, to consider gender balance. Currently, e-IRG has more men in its leadership and secretariat roles, but its events are well balanced in terms of gender. How do you view the significant skills gap between men and women, particularly in research, and what steps are e-IRG and wider European initiatives taking to address and improve this issue?

Addressing this issue is undoubtedly challenging, and it’s not unique to e-IRG but prevalent at the European and even domestic levels. In my work for the Ministry, we grapple with this question almost daily, exploring ways to enhance the situation. What I’ve observed is a generational shift. Some Eastern European countries have demonstrated better gender balance in technical schools and universities compared to countries like Austria, Germany, or France. The newer generations pursuing scientific careers seem to have more self-confidence. This shift applies to both younger men and women who are more committed to their career paths.

Regarding the challenges faced by female participants, especially concerning managing families, societal changes are evident. In Austria, there might still be a more traditional view of family structures, but neighboring countries like the Netherlands, France, and Finland offer positive examples of creating better conditions for young women to pursue their educational goals. There’s progress being made in reducing these imbalances, even within school systems. A good example is how to simply set up conditions where young women can follow this curriculum more easily. I believe this is improving over time, and I’m quite positive about it. Personally, as a father to a daughter, I hope this will be the case.

Thank you for your insights – I appreciate your positive outlook on this specific issue. Now, let’s return to the European level. Earlier, you mentioned fragmentation as a challenge, particularly when numerous small projects work toward similar goals but result in limited impact. This issue is noticeable even in Horizon Europe work programmes, where efforts can overlap. What, in your opinion, should e-IRG do to remain relevant, especially when substantial investments are top-down driven and fragmentation is on the rise? For example, the Digital Europe programme includes initiatives that align with GÉANT’s goals but primarily target business and industry. How do you envision the development of this ecosystem in the future?

You’ve touched upon one of the most significant issues, and I believe it’s primarily due to how research programs are designed. The responsibility for addressing this matter also lies with the Member States, as they should convey the challenges faced by the scientific community to the program committees of research infrastructures and EuroHPC. Unfortunately, what I’ve observed is that most Member State representatives do not discuss these issues in programme committees, which is concerning. On the other hand, the European Commission tends to emphasise that it’s the Member States who make the decisions, so the onus is on them to raise these concerns.

However, there might be an opportunity within the discussions about the upcoming Horizon Europe framework programme. From our perspective, we’ve engaged in extensive discussions with colleagues from various domains and ministries. We’ve concluded that continuing with the same approach as in previous framework programs, where everything gets bigger and more fragmented, isn’t the right path. Initiatives stemming from Digital Europe, the framework program, and even EuroHPC have become increasingly fragmented. Some initiatives don’t coordinate with others, resulting in suboptimal policy ideas.

For example, there’s a prominent concept called ‘data spaces’, which is causing confusion. Different directorates within the Commission have varying ideas about it, and there’s a distinction between those focused on industry and those focused on science and research. This division isn’t practical, and it’s perplexing why these structures within the Commission sometimes lead to suboptimal outcomes for the European Research Area.

In summary, the fragmentation issue needs to be addressed. It might be beneficial to incorporate this concern into the Horizon Europe framework program. We should aim to bring various stakeholders together, including the scientific community, to recognise the common understanding that our efforts should benefit European scientists. I don’t have a definitive solution, but I do believe it’s crucial to acknowledge the role of Member States in bringing these issues to the table and discussing potential improvements within our existing system.

I understand that it’s a complex issue, and your insights are valuable. It’s not just a challenge for e-IRG but a broader issue in Brussels and across various sectors.

Indeed, it’s a pervasive challenge, and I hope that addressing this fragmentation will lead to more effective initiatives and support for the European scientific community. It’s essential to safeguard and sustain structures that are working effectively.

As you just said, GÉANT‘s been around for a while, and it works. It should be sustained, which is always very nice to hear. EOSC is a relatively new invention, but GÉANT and EOSC obviously have a good relationship. That came to the point where in an e-IRG white paper in 2022, GÉANT was mentioned as a vital trust integrator for the EOSC ecosystem. So, GÉANT is not just about connectivity. We have our trust and identity services like eduroam, eduGAIN, and other AAI and security services. How do you think GÉANT can be of use to the wider EOSC community, especially when we’re talking about trust and associated services?

I think GÉANT could be even stronger here. There are two key aspects to consider in this context. First, the functioning infrastructure, which necessitates services like AAI , and I believe the best-case example is where we currently have this infrastructure in place, enabling Europe-wide access to the Internet. The next step involves creating a system that goes beyond just Internet access. We require access to data across various domains, similar to what we’ve defined with the worldwide map of objects. It’s abundantly clear to me that achieving this is not possible without GÉANT and the support of stakeholders in the background, including both large and small research infrastructures. When I mention infrastructures, it’s crucial to note that they come with associated costs. We should also consider the collections and resources available in this domain. Therefore, I believe there’s a shared understanding among the younger generation involved in recent activities because we’ve witnessed the evolution of these technologies. I remember being at university in the early ’90s when we could connect computers from different continents and exchange emails without relying on external authorities like the Commission. This organic development has resulted in a highly efficient system that continues to expand, not limited to Europe but also extending to other continents like Africa and our counterparts in South America. Consequently, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel; we should focus on leveraging existing structures.

Thank you very much for such comprehensive answers. Finally, we’d like to know a bit more about you. What was the last book you read, film you saw in the cinema, or summer holiday?

The most recent book I read was during my vacation in Greece on an island, and it was a beautiful experience. I thoroughly enjoyed the Mediterranean lifestyle and found more time for reading. I’d like to recommend a book to anyone interested in the political situation in Russia. It’s Catherine Belton’s “Putin’s Friends.” This book offers a well-executed analysis backed by extensive research, including interviews, covering the complex history involving the USSR and how it has led to the current geopolitical situation in Europe. It’s a highly engaging read. Personally, I appreciate the depth of research in the book, particularly since I had some involvement in the developments of the early ’90s and ’80s. Specific cities in Europe, such as London, Vienna, Zurich, and Brussels, played pivotal roles in the political and economic changes discussed in the book. So, that’s my book recommendation, and it was the last book I read! Personally, I loved it; it was even more thrilling than an Agatha Christie novel.

GÉANT CONNECT Magazine - CONNECT 44. How do GÉANT and the NRENs support Open ScienceThis article is featured on CONNECT 44, the latest issue of the GÉANT CONNECT Magazine!

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