26 Jul 2018   |   News

How the Science Cloud could pay its way

New paper explores potential business models for the European Open Science Cloud

The best way for the EU to get its bold plan for an open science cloud up and running is to focus initially on meeting the needs of the 725,000 researchers working in higher education.

That’s one of the key conclusions from a new paper published by Science|Business, which says the the open science cloud’s top priority should be to make it straightforward and cost-effective for publicly-funded EU researchers to meet the growing requirement to open their results and data to other researchers. On the basis that Member States’ science ministries and the EU institutions fund approximately two-thirds of the research conducted in EU universities, the paper estimates the higher education sector could spend up to €2.25 billion a year on services available through the new European Open Science Cloud (EOSC).

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Once it is launched in November 2018, the EOSC could evolve into a multi-sided marketplace, akin to Amazon.com or Apple’s App Store, in which the value to each market segment depends on the participation of other market segments. After it reaches a critical mass, the EOSC will, like other marketplaces, be subject to so-called network effects (it grows in value as it attracts more participants).

The paper is the product of two meetings of our Cloud Consultation Group, a gathering of members of the Science|Business university-industry network with a special interest in the science cloud. They include experts from ETH-Zurich, CERN, Microsoft, the European Space Agency and others. The resultant paper, while drawing on the members’ expertise, is ultimately a statement of Science|Business and does not necessarily reflect the views of individual members.

As well as targeting higher education, the paper notes that the EOSC needs to help Europe’s major research infrastructures, known as the big data science factories, make data sets and analytical tools available in an open manner – in many cases, policymakers regard public usage of the data generated by research infrastructures as a key performance metric. If it can engage university researchers across the EU, the EOSC could help the big data science factories demonstrate how useful their work is to the wider scientific community and help them justify their public funding.   

The Commission has said it will invest €300 million to support the core functions of the EOSC in phase 1 (up to 2020).  In phase 2, after 2020, the Commission envisages the activities of the EOSC could be financed by a mix of funding, including possibly deposit fees from national funders, as well as revenues generated from users.

A freemium model to encourage early participation

To achieve critical mass, the paper suggests the science cloud should initially give registered researchers in universities free access to EOSC-certified data and related research tools provided by their peers in higher education. Under this “freemium” model, usage of the data and tools would need to be monitored to prevent abuse (only limited extracts could be downloaded). This monitoring would also enable the EOSC executive body to track usage patterns and refine the overall proposition.

The EOSC will have to compensate the providers of the authentication, search and discovery tools/catalogues researchers will employ as they use the EOSC. Moreover, research communities will have to pay for their usage of commercial IaaS, PaaS and SaaS services provided by EOSC-accredited service providers at commercial rates.

Once their research has been peer-reviewed and the resulting data and research tools certified as EOSC-compliant, the paper suggests the research team and its higher education institution should be given public recognition. For example, their contribution could be published in an “open science index”, which ranks researchers by their contributions to the EOSC. If and when the EOSC begins to generate revenues, this index could be supplemented with credits (or cloud coins) that can be spent on EOSC-accredited services.  The credits awarded could be based on usage of the dataset.

Such a freemium model would help keep the barriers to usage of the EOSC as low as possible. The aim is to enable researchers in higher education to explore the potential of the open science cloud without incurring significant financial expenditure.

From 2020 (once the EOSC Executive Body has a legal status that enables it to manage funds), private companies and commercial spinouts from universities and SMEs could pay the EOSC a subscription to access the services that are available for free to public sector researchers. At this point, the EOSC could also begin charging mainstream researchers working in higher education a low subscription fee to access EOSC-certified data or research tools, if the initial freemium model proves to be unsustainable. 

Other potential source of revenues (as identified by the EOSC High Level Expert Group) could be fees paid by conformant commercial service providers to offer their services in the marketplace, a transaction tax on EOSC credit vouchers (i.e. a service provider is taxed a small percentage on each voucher that is redeemed against their services), perhaps combined with a transaction tax on private sector users.

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