Friday, January 22, 2016

Computer Science in Europe (contribution by Thomas A. Henzinger)

This is the second viewpoint piece I received in response to my call for opinions on the report on logic activities in Europe that Yuri Gurevich wrote in 1992. Thanks to Tom for taking the time to write this piece and for allowing me to share it on this blog. Enjoy it! 

Computer Science in Europe

It saddens me but it would be difficult to refute a claim that, in the past two decades, Europe has been falling further behind the United States in the dynamism of the information technology industry, the popularity of the computer science major, and the impact of frontier research in computing. The vast majority of Turing awards still goes to researchers who work in the United States. It is particularly disconcerting that the main strengths of European computer science appear largely unchanged from 1994: on the academic side, Europe's research leaders are still concentrated disproportionately in formal methods, and on the industrial side, Europe's technology leaders are still found primarily in the "old" economy, exemplified by the automotive industry.

To close the gap, Europe desperately needs new organizational structures in academia, a greater entrepreneurial spirit of society, an improved image for computer science as a career choice, especially among women, the mandatory acquisition of computational thinking and coding skills in secondary education, and more emphasis on principles of systems building which are critical to industry in university curricula of computer science. Israel offers a role model for closing the gap with the United States with regard to the first three points ---academic structures, entrepreneurial culture, and the public image of computer science--- and has been a leader in computer science education.

There are a few encouraging signs of European computer science changing. The European systems community has begun to organize itself through efforts such as the Eurosys conference and some countries are trying to remedy their deficiencies in systems research. Germany, for example, founded the Max Planck Institute for SoftwareSystems. Several European countries and institutions have started to copy key aspects of the American career model, such as tenure tracks that give faculty early independence and doctoral programs that give students a broad graduate education. Student mobility and structured doctoral education are strongly supported by the Marie Curie program of the European Union and by the funding agencies of some countries, to counteract the wide-spread habit of researchers advancing in the same lab from undergraduate to faculty level.

There have been some remarkable institutional changes. EPFL has demonstrated that changes in the organization and recruiting can lead to dramatic improvements in the scientific reputation and attractiveness of an institution. Even entirely new institutions have been founded, such as IST Austria, which naturally find it easier to implement new structures such as a tenure track and an institutional doctoral school.

The most significant development can be found, perhaps surprisingly, on the European level. I am referring to the creation of the EuropeanResearch Council, which supports frontier research based purely on scientific criteria. This program has no counterpart in the United States, but if it manages to remain scientifically independent and well-funded, I am confident that its impact will change the game. These are big if's, of course, and the ERC is constantly being threatened by national interests and sectorial lobbies that favor traditional programs which distribute the available funds to more different countries, sectors, and groups. Given that politicians love to pride themselves with the founding of "strategic" consortia, centers, and flagships, and industry likes to get every possible cut of public money, the initial success of the ERC has been all the more remarkable. Let's work together so that it will trump the less effective funding formats and lift the strength of computer science in Europe.

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