Research commissioner-to-be outlines her priorities as MEPs grill her on the key research, innovation and education issues ahead of the plenary vote on her appointment later this month
Ensuring budget stability will be a key priority for Iliana Ivanova, the EU’s research commissioner-to-be, if MEPs accept her appointment in a vote later in September.
In a three-hour hearing intended to help the European Parliament decide if she gets the post, Ivanova showed she had done her homework over the summer. She successfully responded to a myriad of questions on the wide-ranging EU commissioner portfolio that alongside research and innovation, also covers education, culture, sport and youth.
The Bulgarian nominee gave a 15-minute speech ahead of the barrage of questions in which she made it clear she sees research and innovation taking a decisive role in Europe’s ambitions for the future, pointing to a stable EU budget for research and innovation as a key precondition for success.
To achieve her goals, “I will do so first through supporting a stable and sufficient budget,” Ivanova said during a speech in which she switched seamlessly between English, Bulgarian, German and French.
She pointed to the in-built potential for upping the €95.5 billion budget of the EU research programme by mobilising additional public and private resources and promised MEPs she would explore all the options, from deeper synergies with other EU funds, to attracting more private funding through industrial partnerships.
Her ambitions are big but Ivanova won’t have much time in office, with a new Commission due to take over the Berlaymont next autumn. But she’s qualified for the role the two Parliament committees in charge of the hearing have already ruled, singling out her communication skills as a key strength.
“Exceptional and determined,” said MEP Maria Graça Carvalho. Thomas Jorgensen, director at the European University Association (EUA), called Ivanova "competent with an eye for technicalities.” Robert-Jan Smits, president of Eindhoven University of Technology, said Ivanova is “a safe pair of hands” and noted she appears “robust, structured and solid.”
Facing a room packed with MEPs and curious observers with an aura of confidence, Ivanova cited simplification of Horizon Europe, overseeing the implementation of the €10 billion European Innovation Council (EIC) and international cooperation under the Horizon Europe research programme, as the top priorities on her long to-do list.
She was nominated in late June following the departure of the previous commissioner Mariya Gabriel who was called up to Sofia to help form a coalition government in her native Bulgaria.
Before this Ivanova was a member of the European Court of Auditors and previously served as an MEP, when she was vice chair of the budgetary control committee.
Following the hearing, a group of MEPs from the two committees declared Ivanova suitable to take up the top research job. On Wednesday, the Conference of Presidents, based on the committees’ ruling, will decide whether Ivanova’s appointment will be put forward to a vote in the Parliament’s plenary in September.
Making the best of a limited term
The first to pose a question to Ivanova was Horizon Europe rapporteur Christian Ehler MEP, who asked what her plans were for protecting the EU’s research budget from being diverted to tackle crises and EU political priorities, as has been the case with the EU Chips Act, the Commission’s New European Bauhaus ambitions and various COVID-19 measures.
Ivanova promised to protect the budget but mentioned that to date no money has been diverted to priorities not covered by Horizon Europe. And the reshuffled money within Horizon, as in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, helped saved lives.
“But I agree with you that we should be very careful, especially with the higher challenges [such as] the green and digital transitions that are coming,” said Ivanova. “Let's not focus only on the budget, because whatever it is, I don't think it will be ever enough to fill the €100 billion yearly persistent gap that we have had for the past 20 years in funding research and innovation.”
Another key question during the hearing was the Horizon Europe Widening programme that aims to bridge the innovation gap between the east and west. It’s been highly contested, with many, including the Commission’s research chief Marc Lemaitre, who attended the hearing in person, suggesting the time may be ripe for a revamp.
Ivanova promised Widening will be high on her agenda. In particular, she sees more potential for the hop-on facility, which allows organisations in the Widening countries to join ongoing EU R&I projects.
"What we've observed when we audited [the hop-on facility] is that it has not been sufficiently used, so we could perhaps expand it to use it also with the [49 Horizon Europe industrial] partnerships,” Ivanova argued, drawing on her experience at the European Court of Auditors.
But the member states have a key role to play here too, she added. The Commission can't provide incentives if member states don’t bite on the carrot to boost investment and make the necessary reforms.
Another priority for Ivanova will be the simplification of Horizon Europe through the wider introduction of no-strings-attached lump sum funding, which has already replaced the traditional real-costs reporting in parts of the Pillar 2 of Horizon Europe, which funds large scale collaborative projects.
Ivanova told MEPs she sees potential for the expansion of this more relaxed form of funding to the fundamental research and innovation pillars, Pillar 1 and 2.
“I've always said that, for me simplified cost options are probably one of the best ways to reduce red tape and also reduce the error rate,” she told MEPs.
Alain Mermet, chief of the Brussels bureau of France’s Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), who attended the hearing, noted the further introduction of lump sums is only part of the solution and should done with extreme caution.
Supporting Ivanova’s bid for the top job, Mermet also welcomed her focus on synergies and recognition of the importance of her portfolio as a driving force for the EU’s future. He only wishes she was more ambitious regarding the R&I budget: the goal is to go beyond preserving it, he said.
Also in Ivanova’s portfolio are overseeing the final steps in the creation the European Education Area, Erasmus+ implementation, university alliances, among many other R&I and education-related issues.
Many of the key points she made during the hearing were summarised in the 38-page document where she sketched out her answers, published by the European Parliament ahead of the briefing. Here’s a Science|Business summary of the document.