28 Nov 2019   |   News

Last-minute change sees ‘research’ reinstated in job title of R&D commissioner

After weeks of intense lobbying, incoming commission president Ursula von der Leyen gives in to pressure and adds ‘research’ to the job title - at the last possible moment

Maryia Gabriel, commissioner for Research, Innovation, Education, Culture & Youth. Photo: European Commission

The incoming president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen has given into demands that the word ‘research’ should feature in the research commissioner’s job title, making the change at the last possible minute, just before the European Parliament confirmed the new team of commissioners in Strasbourg on Wednesday.

Von der Leyen’s last-minute decision means that rather than being appointed Innovation and Youth Commissioner, Bulgarian Mariya Gabriel will now become commissioner for Research, Innovation, Education, Culture & Youth.

The change is more about sending a political message to researchers and does not alter the job description, which was always going to include science and research policy. But the move may help ease concerns among academics that EU support for basic science is being eclipsed by industry-oriented technological innovation. 

“It’s what we have been asking for,” said Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities, “It’s clear that she [Gabriel] has a very broad portfolio, and I have no problem with the recognition of culture and youth, but out of all that, research and education had to be there [in the title],” he said. “I think it’s a very wise decision by president von der Leyen.”

Researchers pushing for the change seemed to be losing the battle in recent weeks, as von der Leyen altered other portfolio names but left Innovation and Youth as it was.

The decision came about as late as it possibly could have, on the same day as the European Parliament formally approved the new commissioners, sealing their job titles for the next five years. The new commission will take office on Sunday, 1 December.

The day before the vote, the Horizon Europe rapporteurs Christian Ehler and Dan Nica sent the incoming president a letter urging her – not for the first time – to add the word ‘research’ to Gabriel’s job title.

“The balance between research and innovation will ensure the success of Horizon Europe,” Ehler said, reacting to news of the change. His comment highlights concerns that funding for basic science was taking a back seat to more policy-driven technological innovation. He also welcomed the addition of education and culture, calling them “the basic building blocks of European society.” Ehler and von der Leyen are both members of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union in Germany.

Gabriel’s was not the only fought-over job title. Greece’s new commissioner, former commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas, who is to be responsible for migration and culture, was originally to be given the title, ‘Vice President for protecting our European way of life’. But some MEPs on the left claimed this was a concession to the far-right. By way of compromise, von der Leyen swapped “protecting” for “promoting” earlier this month.

There were also last-minute tweaks to the content of some commissioners’ portfolios.

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