EU is poised to give industry a data boost – and universities want in

14 Mar 2023 | News

With parliament voting through the EU Data Act, it is edging towards adoption. But universities say that as things stand it represents a missed opportunity for research and innovation in the public sector

Thierry Breton, European Commissioner for Internal Market, speaking at a European Parliament plenary session on the Data Act. Photo: Alain Rolland / European Union

The EU’s new upcoming Data Act promises to unleash a myriad of industrial data into the economy, boosting competitiveness and innovation. But universities are railing against a lack of provision for their researchers to get access and say it marks a missed opportunity.

The Act is intended to give Europe’s industry a leg up by making businesses share their data. Today, according to the European Commission’s estimates, 80% of industrial data is underused, with companies keeping it under lock and key. If it were accessible, it could add €270 billion to the EU’s GDP by 2028.

Data is a “growing competitiveness asset for Europe, an asset we cannot afford not to optimise,” says Pilar del Castillo Vera, European Parliament rapporteur for the file.

Making the data available would underpin Europe’s ambition to achieve technology sovereignty, del Castillo said. “Sovereignty is very much about our capacity to compete and innovate, and the Data Act is precisely that. If we had to define with two single words what is the Data Act about, we can clearly say competitiveness and innovation.”

The European Parliament voted through its negotiating position on the Data Act today. The member states are yet to settle on theirs, but a deal is pending. This means the file, first proposed by the European Commission a year ago, will soon be heading into the final negotiation stage before being adopted.

But for universities and research organisations, the legislation is a missed opportunity to provide their researchers with access to more data. They complain of a lack of clarity over how they might benefit, given universities and research organisations are not singled out in the text.

“It would’ve been great – and it’s what we argued for – [to have] a provision to facilitate access to the data for researchers. There is so much data there that researchers could use,” said Julien Chicot, senior policy officer at The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities. “The conditions for universities to access data are very limited.”

A special provision is not in the books, but Chicot hopes the final text will at least bring some clarity to research organisations that are trying to navigate the EU’s complex data regulation landscape. “The best we can hope for is some guidance from the Commission,” said Chicot.

Overall, as the EU continues to create rules for its data economy, Chicot argues for more consideration of research actors in it. This could be done by improving the impact assessment the Commission carries out when drafting proposals to include research. “If we had a broader impact assessment, maybe we would avoid having a piece of legislation with a negative impact or a missed opportunity,” said Chicot.

This isn’t new. Much of the EU’s data legislation misses the opportunity to enable researchers to exploit its untapped potential, and some of it even impedes research. A year ago, when the EU adopted its Digital Services Act, research stakeholders were worried stringent transparency rules could have a negative impact on open science. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), meanwhile, reportedly continues to pose problems to scientists aiming to access data to carry out health research.

While the EU continues to legislate its data economy, in the research policy bubble, the member states, the Commission and stakeholders are holding talks on how to deal with the new legislative and regulatory framework as part of the European Research Area (ERA) Forum. No concrete guidance has come out yet, but as part of the plan for the Forum’s discussion, the Commission has promised to identify barriers and possible measures to address them.

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