25 Sep 2019   |   News

Clamour for new commission to change the name of ‘innovation and youth’ portfolio

Researchers and academics across Europe decry absence of research and education in Mariya Gabriel’s new job title

The structure of the new college of commissioners, unveiled by president-elect Ursula von der Leyen, has left many scientists disappointed. Photo: European Commission

Scientists are demanding the new job title of commissioner designate Mariya Gabriel’s is changed to “Education, Research, Innovation and Youth,” with  a petition signed by more than 8,000 scientists, university heads and academics across Europe, protesting the decision of European Commission’s president-elect Ursula von der Leyen to subsume education and research under a new portfolio for “innovation and youth”.

In her mission letter to Gabriel, Von der Leyen emphasised that “education, research and innovation will be key to [the EU’s] competitiveness”.

But scientists fear that since education and research are not explicitly mentioned in the job title, Von der Leyen is signalling her commission will favour commercial exploitation above the research and education that lays the foundations of innovation. In addition, there is disquiet the title implies education is for young people only, rather than being relevant to all age groups.

Signatories want the European Parliament to request this change before the confirmation hearing next Monday. “Without dedication to education and research there will neither exist a sound basis for innovation in Europe, nor can we fulfil the promise of a high standard of living for the citizens of Europe in a fierce global competition,” the petition says.

Antonio Loprieno, president of the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities (ALLEA), said scientists should not be alarmed by the new label, if the content of the portfolio includes research and education.

However, many academies in Europe are ringing the alarm bells and ALLEA is also preparing a letter on their behalf, demanding the commission reconsiders the title. “I can confirm that many of our academies have asked us to add our voice to their concerns about this issue,” Loprieno told Science|Business. “We certainly support it,” he said. 

The Polish Academy of Sciences has already expressed its concern over the disappearance of "research" and "science" from Gabriel’s portfolio, saying the new name could indicate a shift in the priorities of the commission and a downgrading of the importance of science. That “would have to have catastrophic consequences for Europe in these times of global scientific revolution,” the academy said.

The nomination letter gives Gabriel a broad brief, encompassing education, scientific research, innovation, culture, youth and sport. The academy argues that will mean less time will be devoted to scientific research policy, “which would have to have a very negative impact on the EU's competitiveness in the longer-term future.”

Labels vs. content

According to Loprieno, European academies are concerned that with research cut out of the title, science will lose the attention of policy makers in Brussels. Retaining it, “would have certainly been better in terms of convincing the science community that research remains on top of the agenda,” said Loprieno.

If the title of the portfolio is not to include the words research and education, the new commissioner should make it clear from the outset that she sees them as central to her role, Loprieno said. “Responsible officers at EU level should perhaps go the extra mile at the beginning of their service.”

Loprieno himself is not alarmed by the new label of the portfolio. Instead, he is more interested in how scientists make sure research and education are high up the agenda of next commission. “I tend to be perhaps more sceptical of labels than some of my colleagues,” he said.  

Being Swiss, Loprieno is used to having important policy portfolios clustered under broader headings. For example, he has no issue with the Swiss government putting sport under the defence portfolio, or economy and science within same ministry. “We fare very well with that,” he said.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up