European Science Minister at Heart of Political Scandal

Accusations of favoritism and mismanagement have been leveled at Edith Cresson, the European commissioner responsible for science since 1995, by the European Commission, the executive body and civil service of the European Union (EU). An independent report on fraud and nepotism published this week by the commission stated that Cresson was guilty of a "clear-cut case of favouritism," and that her department had "a dysfunctional organisational climate and structure." All 20 European commissioners resigned as a result of the report's findings.

Between 1995 and 1997, Cresson employed close friend Rene Berthelot as a scientific advisor on such issues as AIDS research in Thailand and pharmaceutical R&D investment. The commission's report found that prior to this appointment, Berthelot's career did "not reveal any trace of scientific work" and that his appointment was therefore "manifestly irregular." The report also states that there is a strong suggestion that some of the work Berthelot was paid for was "undertaken in the personal interests of Mrs. Cresson" in her capacity as mayor of the French town of Châtellerault.

Cresson was further criticized for her role in a separate affair surrounding the Leonardo da Vinci vocational training scheme. A number of official reviews of the training scheme revealed evidence of serious improprieties in the period between 1995 and 1998. Although Cresson was not directly involved in these improprieties, the report found that she had acted in an "unacceptable" manner as the head of the department responsible for the training scheme. "Commissioner Cresson failed to act in response to known serious and continuing irregularities over several years," the report concludes.

Within hours of the report's publication, all 20 European commissioners met, agreed to take collective responsibility for its findings, and resigned en masse. However, at a subsequent press conference in Brussels, Jacques Santer, president of the commission, attacked the report for being unbalanced. "I note that on the basis of a tiny number of cases of fraud and malfunctioning, which did indeed merit criticism, the committee's report paints a picture of total absence of responsibility on the part of the institution and its officials. This picture is distorted. I consider the tone of the report's conclusions to be wholly unjustified."

While Cresson would never win any popularity contests with European scientists, she was praised by Françoise Praderie of the association Euroscience for the "efficient manner in which she negotiated with the [member state's] governments an above inflation increase in Framework Programme 5 [ the EU's recently launched science budget]." However, Praderie feels that Cresson was handicapped by having no background in science and hopes that this will be remedied when a new commissioner is appointed. "It is my opinion, as a scientist, that the person who takes the position of commissioner should certainly be a good political mind but also have competence in the science," she told Next Wave.

A spokesperson for DGXII, the unit that runs the European science budget, said that Cresson's resignation would "not make any difference" to implementation of current scientific policy. In line with commission statutes, Cresson will stay at her desk and carry out day-to-day, but not political, tasks until a replacement is appointed. Several European leaders, including U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, have indicated that this will be sooner rather than later. A fixed timetable for locating a replacement has yet to be announced.

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