Even though Greek researchers rank first in winning Horizon 2020 grants in the field of security, resulting applications are seldomly found. At the eighth stop of our AlgoRail through Europe, Nikolas Leontopoulos reports how European research funding is often used to keep companies competitive rather than building solutions tailored to end-users needs.

The 80-billion-euro fund Horizon 2020 is “the biggest EU Research and Innovation programme ever” according to the European Commission.  Almost all Horizon 2020 consortia consist of a coalition of research centers, large and small companies, and public bodies, which the European Commission calls “end users”.

Greece is only the 9th-largest EU country by population, but Greek researchers rank first in winning Horizon 2020 grants in the field of security, according to data from Horizon 2020’s dashboard. Greek organizations were part of several Horizon 2020 projects that developed automated decision-making systems. Thessaloniki’s CERTH is part of Anita, a program to spot criminals active in online marketplaces, and of Tensor, which aims at “retrieving and analyzing heterogeneous online content for terrorist activity recognition.” Kemea received half a million euros to develop Foldout, a project where machine learning shall be put to use to detect asylum-seekers when they enter the EU overland. There are many more.

Despite a flurry of research projects where Greek research institutions or end-users play a major role, very little evidence of automation could be found in Greece. If Greece is such a prolific producer of AI research, why does it have so little to show for it?

Not more that meets the AI

We challenged various stakeholders of the Greek research ecosystem, from research centers to end-users, to provide examples of Horizon 2020 research projects that were transformed into products or have been applied in real life. Almost all our interlocutors had little or nothing to say.

Only one official from the ministry of Maritime Affairs, one of Horizon 2020’s main end-users, did point to one emblematic ‘success-story’ involving AI: “Optinet”, which was funded by the European Commission’s regional development fund.  Optinet is “an innovative tool to optimize the network of coastal navigation” according to Athina Foka, the head of the EU Structural Funds service at the ministry. But Optinet started in 2018 and is scheduled to be delivered in 2021. Currently, it does not even have a website, and it is unclear what parts of the project involve automated decision-making.

No blue skies in Greece

One Greek researcher, who asked to be identified only as “Artemis” and who has worked on several Horizon 2020 projects, says: “This is not ‘blue skies’ research [research projects with no implementation goals]; this is supposed to be applied science. Projects are funded in order to lead to products or platforms, to serve real-life needs.” The official motto of Horizon 2020 is: “Taking great ideas from the lab to the market”. Even the European Commission acknowledged this shortcoming. In the “interim evaluation” of the Horizon 2020 programme, among the “lessons learned” was the need for more “impact” and “breakthrough innovation”.

If Horizon 2020 does not lead to impact or breakthrough innovation, then where is the added value?

Mr Vardoulias, a researcher at the American College of Greece, lays out its implicit rationale: “Since direct funding of companies is prohibited in the EU, the alternative was to find an indirect way to provide funding for the companies so that they remain competitive on a global scale. The US and China support their companies, so the EU should do the same. This is a very competitive process and funds are very limited. But it can provide both an initial boost for start-ups and an incentive for innovation for larger companies.”

Greece’s research on life support

The benefits are even more critical for a country such as Greece. Since 2010, hundreds of thousands of highly-educated graduates have emigrated. Mr Vardoulias points out that “during the crisis years, one of the only imports of capital was via the research programmes. They still fulfill an existential need for university graduates active in AI research, which is extremely difficult in a country with very limited industry.”

Research programs are not without flaws, says Mr Vardoulias. “The research projects’ mantra is innovation. But calls are not always compatible with reality, with what is needed and what is feasible. In some cases, this along with the fierce competition leads the applicants to promise far-fetched things. Proposals that sound cool may get promoted at the expense of others that may be better fit for the reality imposed by budget and time constraints.”

Short life spans

Mr Kyriazanos, a leading research for Greece’s top research organization, NCSR Demokritos, says: “At the end of each project, there will be some tangible results that could be placed on track for commercialisation. However, if there are no national grants, support or calls to assist the researcher, they will move on to ensure funding for the next project. If there are no favorable conditions for the ‘next logical step’ in innovation, results either remain on a low maturity prototype or worse: they are shelved. This means lots of lost opportunities.”

“Researchers should get out of their labs”

One of the main end-users of Horizon 2020 projects is the Greek Coast Guard. Ms Foka, of the ministry of Maritime Affairs, overviews the European research projects. She is critical of the work done by research centers, and not just in Greece. “Researchers should get out of their labs and see the real needs. If the deliverable is not tailored on the needs of the end-user, then nobody’s going to use it.”

Mr Artemis says: “The sad reality is that behind a significant proportion of Horizon 2020 projects on AI, there is nothing but hot air. The acronyms are cool, the wording too but what’s really cool is the lifestyle! European research institutions and companies are in for the money. As for individuals, both in the research institutions and the end-users, it’s about a lifestyle of free travel, food and socializing around Europe. It’s an ecosystem addicted to EU funding; without it, it would die.”

That’s it for this eighth stop of our AlgoRail through Europe, on which we want to learn more about how algorithmic systems are used in our European neighborhood. Next week we are going to report from Slovenia. 

This story was shortened by  Julia Gundlach. The unabridged story was  published  on the AlgorithmWatch website.

The blog series AlgoRail is part of the Automating Society Report 2020 by Bertelsmann Stiftung and AlgorithmWatch, which will be published this fall and is coordinated by  Dr. Sarah Fischer. In addition to journalistic stories like this one, the report gives an overview of various examples of algorithmic systems as well as current debates, policy responses and key players in 15 countries.  A first issue of the report  was published in January 2019.

This text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License