Austria Nominates Controversial Science Minister For Top E.U. Post

The conservative Austrian government has nominated its science minister, Johannes Hahn, 52, for the top job in European science policy, that of Commissioner for Research. Hahn has been dogged by criticisms from some scientists in his own country for limp research funding and a failed attempt to pull Austria out of CERN.

Hahn, who earned a Ph.D. in philosophy, has worked both in the gambling industry and in local politics. Since Austria’s ruling Christian-democratic party, ÖVP, tapped him as science minister 3 years ago, he has proven himself hard-working and tenacious, says Stefan Bernhardt, head press officer for the Austrian Science Fund (FWF). “There was a big shake-up of the government last year and most ministers lost their jobs. Hahn was one of the few to keep his.” Media reports today suggested that Hahn's nomination is the result of a political compromise.

The mandate of the current Commissioner, Janez Potočnik, ends this month along with that of the entire European Commission. But it's far from certain that Hahn will replace him. Under E.U. rules, the entire slate of new Commissioners—one from each country—must be approved by the European Parliament. And Commission President José Manuel Barroso, in complex negotiations with member states, determines who gets which post in the new Commission. There have been rumors lately that Greece has designs on the research post as well, and that it plans to nominate Achilleas Mitsos. As a former head of the directorate-general for research—the highest-ranking civil servant under the Commissioner—Mitsos knows the playing field in Brussels like few others.

In Austria, Hahn's performance has been a mixed bag, says Bernhardt. “He made a lot of promises about boosting funding for science that never materialized. But it was really the fault of the economic downturn. The FWF was hit very badly.” However, Austria’s oft-stated goal has been to set aside 3% of its GDP to science. “We're currently at 2.74%. That's above average for Europe,” he says. “It could have been much worse for Austrian science if it weren't for [Hahn’s] efforts.”