Wednesday

20th Feb 2019

EU recycles old promise to fund supercomputers

The European Commission implied on Thursday (11 January) that an announcement on the development of supercomputing would see it receive new EU money - but in fact the plan is based on past promises made.

"Commission proposes to invest €1 billion in world-class European supercomputers," said the headline of a press release featuring as the first item in Thursday's daily newsletter from the EU's executive body.

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  • Digital affairs commissioner Mariya Gabriel with science and research commissioner Carlos Moedas (Photo: European Commission)

But a closer look at the proposed legislation and its staff working documents showed that the EU is banking on commitments made by national governments, as well as previously agreed EU funds.

The commission, under the previous administration, already announced in 2013 that it would spend some €700m on supercomputing during the current seven-year budget period, which ends in 2020.

A 'supercomputer' refers to a machine which can process information and make calculations so fast it can do complex predictions and modelling.

"These supercomputers are vital tools in order to understand the complex challenges we face," said digital affairs commissioner Mariya Gabriel at a press conference on Thursday.

"These supercomputers open up the path to new scientific and industrial applications, for example the design of new medicines and cosmetic products and the simulation of the effects of these medicines; the design of new aircraft; personalised medical diagnostics; the development and modelling of the human brain; or how we can predict the effects of climate change," she said.

However, Europe is lagging behind in the field of supercomputing.

According to an often-cited ranking the two fastest such computers are located in China.

Non-EU member Switzerland hosts the computer that occupied number three on the list, but the remainder of the top ten consisted of machines based in the US and Japan.

Computers in EU countries appear in the list as 14th (Italy), 15th (UK), 16th (Spain), and 19th (Germany).

But much of the technology underpinning even those Europe-based machines is developed outside Europe.

"We cannot risk being dependent on third countries for these computers," said Gabriel.

Exaflops and petaflops

However, the publicly-stated headline that suggested the EU would allocate €1bn in new money from the EU budget was somewhat misleading.

Instead, what the commission is proposing is the establishment of a new separate legal entity, which would coordinate spending on supercomputing, to become more efficient.

Currently, EU spending on supercomputing is, in the words of the commission, "fragmented", because it takes place through four different EU funds: three working programmes under the so-called Horizon2020 fund, and one from the so-called Connected Europe Facility (CEF).

In addition, several member states have their own programmes.

What the commission wants is to set up a temporary EU public-private partnership which would pool funding and knowledge, and will order two supercomputers.

Computer performance is measured in floating point operations per second, or flops. Ten flops to the fifteenth power is a petaflop, while ten flops the the eighteenth power is an exaflop.

The commission proposed that the two supercomputers the new EU body would buy, would have computing power in the range of between 100 petaflops and one exaflop.

Joint undertaking

The public-private partnership would take the legal shape of a 'joint undertaking', of which the EU already has several.

The joint undertakings are sometimes lumped together with the dozens of EU agencies - they are after all members of the EU Agencies Network - but are generally much smaller, set up temporarily and involve private entities.

The new EU body would be called the European High performance Computing Joint Undertaking, and would be the owner of the supercomputers bought with EU money.

The joint undertaking would decide who gets to use the two supercomputers, which will be each sited in different countries.

It would have its seat in Luxembourg, and employ between 11 and 16 temporary or contract staff from 2019 to 2026, at a cost of €9m in total.

The office to be rented is expected to cost €3m over the seven-year period. The commission also proposed to set €2.4m aside for communication.

The EU would contribute €486m in total, as was already allocated through the Horizon2020 and CEF funds.

According to the regulation proposed on Thursday, national governments would have to chip in a similar amount.

€422m from industry

The commission proposal also said that private companies should contribute at least €422m to the joint undertaking, although there is no guarantee that they will.

The EU already has several joint undertakings, including one aimed at developing electronic components and systems, called the Electronic Components and Systems for European Leadership (ECSEL) joint undertaking.

Industry members are supposed to contribute at least €1.6bn to ESCEL over a ten-year period, but according to a European Parliament resolution published last year, their contribution in 2015 was only €58.7m, and that only 11 of 28 participating member states had made contributions that year.

If the commission finds that contributions by member states and industry do not match those made from the EU budget, it can pull the plug on the operation.

The setting up of the joint undertaking needs to be approved by national governments, but does not need the consent of the European Parliament.

The commission wants it to start operations next year.

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