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13th Jul 2020

Supercomputing lag could prompt EU brain drain

  • Gabriel: 'We need to be very honest with ourselves ... We are not in the top-ten or the top-five in the world' (Photo: European Commission)

The European Union's new commissioner for the digital economy, Mariya Gabriel, has said there is a danger that European computer experts will leave the continent because the bloc is lagging behind in the field of supercomputing.

“We need to be very honest with ourselves,” she told journalists in a briefing in Brussels on Tuesday (29 August).

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“We are not in the top-10 or the top-five in the world when it comes to high-performance computing but we have the potential to do it. That is why we already mobilised some financing for that,” she said.

Supercomputing, also called high-performance computing, is used in a range of areas to carry out advanced simulations, for example to model weather patterns, to detect and treat diseases, or to better understand earthquakes.

The fastest such computer, according to a ranking called the Top 500, is in China, where the second-fastest is also based.

The number three spot is Switzerland, which is not an EU member. The rest of the top-10 is dominated by the United States and Japan.

The first EU country on the list is the United Kingdom, whose meteorological office owns the 11th fastest supercomputer. Spain (13), Italy (14), Germany (17), and France (19) are the other EU states in the top-20.

In 2012, four of the 10 fastest supercomputers were in EU countries.

The EU tries to stimulate research into supercomputing through grants, but has so far taken a soft touch approach with little legislation.

The commission is currently in the process of gathering feedback from stakeholders on whether it should take legislative action. The one-month consultation process ends on Thursday.

“It's very clear: the European Commission alone, or member states alone cannot do it,” said the Bulgarian politician.

“The most important thing is to bring all the efforts together and to have a supercomputing power is also a question of our role in the world,” she added.

“If we don't have the capacity to analyse here, the risk is that it moves abroad. Could it mean that our researchers and our innovators have better chances to go where these supercomputing is functioning better?”, she said.

Western European club

She noted that only nine of the 28 EU member states had joined a European initiative to work together on high-performance computing.

Last March, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain signed a declaration supporting the development of supercomputing.

Since then Belgium and Slovenia also joined. Apart from Slovenia, all signatories are in Western Europe.

“In the next months I will try to bring the others on board and to have a more coherent approach,” said Gabriel.

Risk of polarisation

Speaking more generally about the digital economy, Gabriel warned of "a huge risk of new fragmentations, of new polarisation, of new isolation", between connected and unconnected people.

“Some jobs will be lost, others will be created, and between those two moments there is uncertainty. We need to accompany this process and to accompany the people," she said.

Gabriel became EU commissioner for digital economy and society in July. She was put forward by Bulgaria to join the commission after Kristalina Georgieva left the team.

Georgieva had budget in her portfolio, which was taken over by Gabriel's predecessor, Guenther Oettinger.

At age 38, former MEP Gabriel is the youngest-ever member of the European Commission.

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Mariya Gabriel, a Bulgarian MEP, is designated to take up the EU commission's digital affairs portfolio, although she has little experience with that file.

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Newly-announced financial help for so-called 'supercomputers' can help both EU member states, and small and medium-sized companies to grow - in fields such as health diagnostics, driverless cars and even earthquake predicting.

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