Universities should co-invest in research clouds

University of Eastern Finland head Jukka Mönkkönen talks to Science|Business about pushing harder and faster on open data to make pan European data stores available on tap

Jukka Mönkkönen

Research institutes across Europe should get serious about opening up their giant data troves and co-invest in shared cloud computing facilities, says Jukka Mönkkönen, rector of the University of East Finland.

“It is nonsense that we all operate our own clouds, we should all be co-investing together,” he told Science|Business.

Mönkkönen’s vision is for higher education institutes to step up cooperation to build clouds, not only to save on the expense of server space, but also to better organise the vast amount of knowledge generated across the region. This would create resources scientists could tap easily and cheaply.

“We could separate topics by discipline or theme. The clouds should combine all the issues you can think of. There would be health-specific clouds and climate-clouds,” he said.

Efforts similar to those Mönkkönen describes are underway, but things are not going not fast enough for the rector’s liking.

Examples of very large science hubs in Europe, include ELIXIR, which manages biological data, the European Plate Observing System, which monitors the earth’s crust, and the Helix Nebula project, a computer cloud system run by research centres including the European Organisation for Nuclear Research and the European Space Agency.

The EU has the ultimate aim of interconnecting existing disparate cloud storage into a single, bigger marketplace called the European Open Science Cloud.

That is due to be rolled out in several stages between now and 2020. “It’s a big project and it is never going to be perfect – or even finished. But I think we need to support it,” said Mönkkönen.

The rector, a biopharmacist by training, was in Brussels last week to talk about his university’s recent efforts to open up access to data.

His university switched to “self-archiving” its research output in February. Researchers will publish their articles in subscription-based journals but now also store copies in online repositories after a period of time.

The benefit of this approach, says Mönkkönen, is that scientists keep their incentive to submit papers to high-prestige journals, while everyone else benefits from free research.

Mönkkönen believes that persuading other universities to follow suit will help level the playing field. But he recognises that a total conversion will take time. “Chinese or Russian universities, for example, are not opening their data,” he said.

The open data crusade is not borne out of a motivation to pick a fight with publishers, who Mönkkönen says will retain their power.  “It is just recognition that this is the way things are going. Look at how much the entertainment industry has opened up in the last few years. You can access any song you want over the internet. We need to try something like this in academia; something new.”

Tapping EU funds

Trying something new is a good strategy with the Finnish economy slowly dragging itself out of a three-year recession. 

After a painful austerity blitz, Mönkkönen is keen to compete for more funding in Brussels, where the university has recently opened a new outpost. “National funding has gone down, EU structural funding has gone down,” he said. “So we want to spread out a bit.”

Winning grants from Horizon 2020 is “a tough game”, said Mönkkönen. “But we’ve been able to improve our performance. Not a rocket[ing] improvement, but we’re going the right way.”

The university is part of 31 EU-funded projects which brings in around €14 million in revenue. “We’ve managed to win some European Research Council grants too,” he added.

One thing universities are less sure about is the rising talk of defence R&D in Brussels. The European Commission is expected to draw up a plan for defence investment worth billions of euros in its next budget cycle.

“In the big picture, more defence spending is not what universities want, but we can’t be so stupid as to not pay attention to it,” Mönkkönen said.

Finland, which is not a member of the NATO alliance, has begun thinking more about defending itself of late, in the wake of heightened Russian military activity. “It’s a big issue for us at the moment,” Mönkkönen said, pointing to the unease surrounding the country’s 800-mile border with Russia.

Fear about Russia’s motives and a wave of discontent during the EU debt crisis, means that in common with other EU member states, the makeup of domestic politics has shifted in the last few years.

Comeback Finns

Despite the international renown of its innovation hot spots, Finland’s GDP declined over the last four years, giving Greece competition for worst performing economy in the EU.

Spiralling wage costs reduced competitiveness, and the euro zone debt crisis and a slump in exports to Russia, also exacted a toll.

One familiar explanation for Finland’s problems is that key industries, such as the consumer electronics business that was once led by Nokia, have failed to keep pace with leaner global competitors.

Mönkkönen is seeing signs of life in some old Finnish mainstays.  “It has been a very tough time but there’s some signs we’re coming out of it. Engineering is coming back; ship-building is strong again. We thought forestry was a sunset industry but the bio-economy has changed the situation totally,” he said.

Forestry, traditionally a Finnish strength, has moved to the Southern hemisphere. “But paper consumption is actually increasing. People are reading fewer newspapers but the growth in e-commerce means you need lots of packaging,” he said.

Even the famed 17-year old Nokia 3310 phone is back from the dead – albeit this time produced by new mobile firm HMD Global, which bought the rights from Nokia. “A Finnish legend returns,” said the rector.

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Related subjects: Horizon 2020, Open science cloud