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European Commission expands role of research chief

Bulgaria’s Mariya Gabriel picked to lead newly named policy department that combines research with education and youth affairs.

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Digital commissioner Mariya Gabriel smiles

Bulgaria’s Mariya Gabriel has been chosen for the European Commisson’s top research job.Credit: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty

Bulgarian political scientist Mariya Gabriel has been nominated as the European Union’s next commissioner for research — but, for the first time in the bloc’s history, the name of her department will not include that word.

Gabriel, if confirmed in the post, will lead the European Commission’s newly named — and expanded — Directorate General for Innovation and Youth. The policy department, previously titled Research and Innovation, will now oversee not just research and innovation, but also education, youth affairs and sport.

But the name change is largely superficial, say observers. Scientists need not fear that research might become less important in the new commission, says Christian Ehler, a Member of the European Parliament from Germany who has long been involved in coordinating research policies in the legislature. Gabriel will still be in charge of the EU’s next major research programme, Horizon Europe — making her one of the most influential figures in European science policy. If she passes parliamentary hearings next month, she will succeed the current commissioner for research and innovation, Portuguese economist Carlos Moedas, who has been in the post since 2014.

The European Commission’s newly elected president, Ursula von der Leyen, announced Gabriel’s nomination alongside those of 17 other commissioners in charge of different policy areas, as well as eight vice-presidents, on 10 September. The appointments come with a shake-up of the commission’s structure, including changes to some portfolios. The European Parliament must approve the appointees before they take office on 1 November.

Big responsibility

In a nomination letter to Gabriel, von der Leyen briefly outlined the department’s mission, and expressly entrusted her with the implementation of Horizon Europe — which is set to be the commission’s biggest-ever research programme, worth about €100 billion, and includes the European Research Council (ERC), the continent’s premier science funder. The letter also outlined the task of promoting “disruptive research and breakthrough innovations” through the European Innovation Council, a newly created arm of Horizon Europe aimed at boosting the commercialization of scientific discoveries.

As part of her expanded portfolio, Gabriel would also be in charge for education and networking among European universities — activities that previously came under a separate directorate-general for education, youth, sport and culture. That directorate was also responsible for the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions programme, which encourages mobility among scientists, and the Erasmus+ student-exchange programme; these initiatives will now fall under Gabriel.

But responsibility for the EU’s Joint Research Centre — a science and knowledge service that provides information to assist policymaking in the commission and member states — is to be transferred to the commissioner for interinstitutional relations and foresight, Maroš Šefčovič, who is also one of the vice-presidents in the commission’s new architecture.

“Pooling resources for basic and applied research, innovation and education is a very plausible thing to do,” says Ehler. Gabriel has dealt with research issues in her previous role as EU commissioner for digital economy and society, which she held since 2017, making her ideally suited to her new portfolio. “With her political experience and leverage in the commission she’s really a godsend,” he says.

And her experience as a Member of the European Parliament should help in her parliamentary hearings. “She will not get away easily, though, and will need to prepare herself in depth,” says Robert-Jan Smits, a former research chief in the European Commission’s old research directorate who is now president of Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands.

Smits agrees that bringing together innovation, education and youth in one large portfolio will give it weight and visibility. “The European Education Area and the European Research Area are two sides of the same coin,” he says.

Many universities have also long pushed for such a unification, and the European University Association — an umbrella organization for the continent’s universities — welcomed the joint portfolio, and Gabriel’s nomination.

Positive move

Smits says it was disappointing that the ERC was not explicitly mentioned in Gabriel’s nomination letter. But it is reassuring that the European Innovation Council figures prominently, he says. “It will be a relief for the outgoing commissioner to see that his legacy is taken care of,” he says.

Among her other appointments, von der Leyen chose the Dutch politician Frans Timmermans, who is first vice-president in the outgoing commission, as her executive vice-president for the European Green Deal, an ambitious plan to make Europe carbon neutral within a few decades.

The youngest member of her team — 28-year-old Virginijus Sinkevičius, who is currently Lithuanian minister for economy and innovation — is to become commissioner for environment and oceans. Von der Leyen nominated Kadri Simson, Estonia’s former minister of economic affairs and infrastructure, as energy commissioner, and Stella Kyriakides from Cyprus as health commissioner.

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