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Mariya Gabriel: Leaving a legacy

Image: Grace Gay for Research Professional News

The major events overseen by Europe’s now-departed research and innovation commissioner

Mariya Gabriel’s surprise resignation as EU commissioner last week prompted dismay among academics, many of whom felt that she had been a positive force for research and innovation in the bloc.

Gabriel took up the research, innovation and education post in 2019 and had another year left in the role when she resigned on 15 May to try to form a government as the next Bulgarian prime minister.

“At the heart of [Europe] are innovation, research, education, culture and youth. It was an honour and a responsibility to work on these topics,” she said in a parting message.

For now, Commission executive vice-president Margrethe Vestager is taking charge of R&I, while vice-president Margaritis Schinas will cover Gabriel’s education work.

Whatever happens with the role in the future, Gabriel has presided over substantial changes in the landscape for R&I during her three and a half years as commissioner.

RE585_Gabriels_time_in_charge_timelineClick here to see full size graphic

Here are the eight biggest events for R&I in that time, as seen by Research Europe.

1. Crafting a dual role (December 2019)

After taking up a newly created joint research and education post in 2019, Gabriel worked hard to bring research, innovation and education closer together. At a conference in September 2020, she said the three areas are “more powerful when they work together” to tackle the enormous problems facing the EU, such as climate change. 

She suggested that there was a need to better combine the European Research Area and European Education Area, which are designed to remove national quirks and create a smoother environment for research and education across Europe.

Those were not empty words—a few days later, plans to reform the ERA and the EEA were published, spotlighting commitments to boost the R&I spending of countries that trail the EU average by 50 per cent over five years, and plans for “seamless and ambitious transnational cooperation” between universities in Europe.

Although research leaders seemed wary about how effective the proposals would be, Gabriel leaves office with both initiatives on a decent footing. The Commission is already starting to think about its next ERA policy priorities for 2025-27, while EU member states recently backed plans to strengthen the EEA.

2. Pandemic pressure (January 2020)

Gabriel faced two major global challenges during her tenure. The first to arrive was the Covid-19 pandemic. As the virus exploded across Europe in early 2020, Gabriel set about channelling millions of euros from R&I funding programme Horizon 2020 to emergency funding for Covid-19 research.

3. Horizon Europe launches (February 2021)

Gabriel was appointed too late to have much influence over the development of Horizon Europe, but the €95.5 billion, seven-year successor to Horizon 2020 launched under her watch. As a legacy, presiding over the largest research spending programme Europe has ever seen is a big one.

Gabriel also oversaw the “biggest ever” consultation held by the Commission on Horizon Europe and past and future programmes, which closed earlier this year. Researchers took the opportunity to raise concerns that Horizon Europe was imbalanced, overly complicated and too easily influenced by politics—all problems that still exist for the next research commissioner to tackle.

4. Strategic thinking (January 2022)

Gabriel presided over the launch of the European Strategy for Universities, which set out the Commission’s vision for increased cooperation between higher education institutions in Europe. When she presented the plans that make up the strategy in January 2022, Gabriel said they would “benefit the entire higher education sector”.

5. War comes to Europe (February 2022)

The second global challenge that came Gabriel’s way was war in Ukraine. When Russia invaded in February 2022, she made sure that any agreements with Russian institutions through Horizon Europe or the Euratom nuclear research and training programme were terminated. She also granted Ukrainian institutions free access to Horizon Europe, worth around €20 million.

6. Innovation on the agenda (July 2022)

After starting reforms to the ERA and EEA, Gabriel brought in another pillar: the European Innovation Agenda. When she unveiled plans for the EIA in July last year, Gabriel promised that it would “make Europe the global powerhouse for deep-tech innovations and startups”. 

The agenda is designed to meet five main challenges to improving innovation in Europe, including better finance and regulation.

Universities have said they feel neglected by the plan and Gabriel leaves it at an earlier stage of development than the ERA or the EEA. But adding a major new three-letter acronym to EU research policy is not something achieved by everyone.

7. Opening up (December 2022)

The decision to fling open the doors of the EU’s Horizon Europe programme to researchers in faraway countries might not have started with Gabriel, but she pushed the work on strongly.

She oversaw the first negotiations for access to a European R&I funding programme with countries beyond member states’ local neighbours, and delivered deals with further-flung nations than had ever been part of the scheme before.

New Zealand became the first to reach an association deal in December 2022, allowing researchers there access to the 2021-27 R&I programme at a similar level to those in the EU.

Japan and South Korea are also poised to start formal talks on associating to the programme, with Canada, Australia and Singapore potential new joiners.

8. Showing initiatives (February 2023)

In a lower-profile move, but one with major impact at ground level, Gabriel has presided over a significant expansion in the number of cross-border European Universities Initiative alliances. These support collaborations between institutions in areas such as joint campuses, qualifications and jobs. 

A target to increase the number of EUI alliances from what was then 41 alliances to 60 by 2024 was included as part of the European universities strategy. 

In February this year, more than 500 universities applied to either create new alliances or strengthen existing ones through the scheme, after €384m was put up for 2023, the highest amount available through an EUI call yet. The results of the call are expected in the summer.

Even though she is cutting her tenure short, Gabriel’s time in the role has been an interesting one. 

Whoever takes over responsibility for research, innovation and education permanently, the research world will be hoping for a similarly safe pair of hands to steer the Commission’s R&I department through what is to come. 

This article also appeared in Research Europe