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Shake-up of R&D and education commissioner roles praised

Image: Walter Isack [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Figures from research and higher education have praised the planned fusion of the EU’s research and innovation and education commissioner roles, but warned that the large portfolio would need to be carefully managed.

Under plans announced by European Commission president-elect Ursula von der Leyen on 10 September, the combined portfolio, titled Youth and Innovation, will be given to the current digital commissioner Mariya Gabriel. It will have two subsections: education, research and innovation; and culture, youth and sport.

Robert-Jan Smits, former director-general of the Commission’s research and innovation department, described the announcement as “excellent news”, saying that the combined portfolio would have “scale and scope” and give “weight and visibility” to its components. 

“The combination of innovation and education in one portfolio makes a lot of sense because the European Education Area and the European Research Area are two sides of the same coin,” Smits said.

He suggested that the move would facilitate the rollout of the European Universities Initiative, which is intended to increase cross-border university collaboration on research and higher education, and that it would give prominence to the newly created European Innovation Council funder.

However, Smits flagged that this would be the first time ever that the word ‘research’ did not appear in the title of the commissioner’s portfolio. And he said he was “a bit surprised and disappointed” that the flagship European Research Council funder was not mentioned in von der Leyen’s letter to Gabriel.

Gabriel, a Bulgarian who has been digital commissioner since 2017, will “certainly do well” in the questioning that all commissioner nominees must face from the European Parliament, Smits suggested, given that she was herself an MEP from 2009 until she joined the Commission.

The European University Association said in a statement that it had continuously called for a strong connection between research, innovation and education, and that a portfolio that could connect these three areas while recognising the importance of each was “extremely welcome”. It said that a “strong” commissioner would be needed and that it “welcomes the proposed candidate for this role…and is actively providing questions for the committee hearings in Parliament in order to ensure that the key policy issues for universities are taken up”.

“Having all these areas together could give the role more political clout,” the EUA’s senior policy coordinator Thomas Jørgensen told Research Professional News. He added that it would be good to have a commissioner in Gabriel “who knows Brussels and can hit the ground running”. But he warned: “What remains to be seen is how she is going to balance such a huge portfolio with so many things that are so important—there’s a danger that she could become too far removed from the fine detail.”

Kurt Deketelaere, the secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities, said he was “very pleased” to see research, innovation and education—as well as the planned 2021-27 Horizon Europe R&D and Erasmus+ education mobility programmes—coming together. He, too, stressed that Gabriel would need to be “a strong co-creator and coordinator”.

Sylvia Gómez Recio, the secretary general of the Young European Research Universities Network, expressed concern about the absence of ‘research’ in the title of the portfolio. She said: “You need to make sure the headlines are directing you to the objectives you want to achieve.”

Details of how the Commission’s R&D and education directorates-general might be reorganised are expected at a later date. The chief officials from the two departments, respectively Jean-Eric Paquet and Themis Christophidou, both said on Twitter that they are looking forward to working with Gabriel.