Brussels’ research bubble has high hopes for new commissioner nominee

29 Jun 2023 | News

Incoming research and education boss Iliana Ivanova will have long list of priorities to attend to, from fending off Horizon Europe budget cuts to shaping the next research framework

The Berlaymont building in Brussels, the headquarters of the European Commission. Photo: Eoghan OLionnain / Flick

Research policy experts are breathing a sigh of relief that Brussels is about to get a new research commissioner who has credentials suggesting she’s up to the task, after the European Commission president picked Iliana Ivanova to take over the running of the EU’s €95.5 billion Horizon Europe R&D programme.

Ivanova is a Bulgarian member of the European Court of Auditors (ECA) and a former member of the European Parliament. Her experience as an EU auditor is seen as a positive sign.

For Joep Roet, deputy director at the Netherlands house for Education and Research, Ivanova is “a European heavyweight” with first hand experience of the many topics on the file, from education to digitisation. “From her time at ECA, she should also understand the intricacies of Horizon, in particular the persistent high error rate and hence the need for simplification,” said Roet.

Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities (LERU), said Ivanova’s time as vice chair of the budgetary control committee at the European Parliament raises hope she’ll be familiar with the numerous EU budget issues.

After six weeks with no dedicated commissioner following Mariya Gabriel’s sudden departure in May, stakeholders are relieved at Ivanova’s nomination. “The research portfolio has been floating for too long now, definitely laying at the bottom of the Commission’s agenda,” said Alain Mermet, head of the Brussels office of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).

Universities in particular are happy to see Ivanova taking over Gabriel’s full portfolio, which means research and education remain under the wing of a single commissioner. “We are very pleased that the portfolio remains unchanged, covering all university missions,” said Amanda Crowfoot, secretary general of the European University Association (EUA). “This is crucial to ensure synergies in policies, especially as new EU funding programmes are prepared, as well as coordination among the Commission’s services.”

Setting direction

Ivanova is yet to be officially appointed – her nomination has to be approved by the European Parliament and the member states – but there is a big in tray to be tackled once she takes office.

Firstly, Ivanova must prepare to defend the EU’s research budget from potential cuts and also be ready to advocate for a strong research policy, as the Commission lays the groundwork for the successor to Horizon Europe, Framework Programme 10 (FP10).

Roet says the new commissioner should first set priorities for the next year, aiming to stabilise and safeguard the EU’s research and education budget, and then continue laying the groundwork for FP10, to enable the next Commission to swiftly take the reins after it is appointed next year.

It’s also a time to set strategy, with Mattias Björnmalm, secretary general of the university association CESAER, pointing to the mid-term review of Horizon Europe and the next policy agenda for the European Research Area (ERA) as opportunities to give direction.

“We have the opportunity now to be bold and ambitious and take our efforts around the ERA and the framework programme to the next level. To achieve this, having a dedicate commissioner providing strong backing at the political level is vital,” says Björnmalm.

Some stakeholders would like to see the new commissioner advocating for fundamental research and creating links between research and other programmess, such as Cohesion.

Overall, they want an advocate for a strong and stable research programme at the top of the Commission. “We can only hope at this stage that the new commissioner, coming from the European Court of Auditors, reveals herself as open as possible and as firm as necessary to promote an ambitious EU budget for R&I,” says Mermet.

Long to-do list

Before setting the direction for the next few years of research policy, there are continuing Horizon implementation issues to attend to.

Muriel Attané, secretary general of the European Association of Research and Technology Organisations (EARTO), says first on the list is fixing the problems plaguing the newer parts of Horizon Europe, including the low take up of the Missions, the shortcomings in getting the European Innovation Council (EIC) off the ground and the much-resisted introduction of lump sum funding.

Then, there’s the task of continuing to marry research, innovation and education in one portfolio. This isn’t an easy ask, Björnmalm notes, due to the way the Commission works, especially when it comes to files that traverse multiple policy areas, such as research and academic careers, data and science, and technology infrastructures.

Looking beyond EU borders, Ivanova will have to advance Horizon Europe’s international expansion. UK and Switzerland, the EU’s closest research partners, continue to be locked out of the programme. Lidia Borrell-Damián, secretary general of Science Europe, singled out UK and Switzerland’s association as one of the most pressing priorities for the new commissioner to address.

Björnmalm notes UK and Swiss association is key to achieving Europe’s geopolitical ambitions, as he adds defending R&I’s role in global politics to the commissioner’s to-do list.

On the ground, there’s still work to be done ensuring the EU’s research efforts bear fruit. To get innovators across the entire bloc connected, overseeing the implementation of the Regional Innovation Valleys programme launched by former commissioner Gabriel will be a key task for Ivanova, according to Pirita Lindholm, director of the European Regions Research and Innovation Network (ERRIN).

Lindholm says regional innovation ecosystems will also feature in the upcoming Spanish presidency’s work on the role and impact of research on policymaking. She’s curious to see how work on the area will impact and link with other policies and initiatives.

And there will plenty of housekeeping to attend to. Ivanova’s expertise as an auditor, Attané notes, will be especially valuable in the next few years as various audits on EU research programmes are carried out. “We all remember the challenges of ex-post audits in past framework programmes and we hope this will not be again a flaring issue in coming years,” said Attané.

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