Women Bag Top E.U. Science and Climate Jobs

An Irish politician with no experience in science is slated to become Europe's new research policy chief. European Commission President José Manuel Barroso announced yesterday that he will nominate Máire Geoghegan-Quinn as the E.U.'s new commissioner for research and innovation. Meanwhile, former Danish climate and energy minister Connie Hedegaard will fill a newly created post as commissioner for climate action—a move indicating Europe's interest in playing a key role on the global warming issue.

The slate of commissioners—one from each of the E.U.'s 27 member countries—was finalized a few days ago, but who got which post was subject to talks until Barroso announced the final lineup. The entire commission is subject to approval by the European Parliament in early 2010.

Geoghegan-Quinn, 59, was a member of the lower house of the Irish parliament from 1975 until 1997 and served as a minister in various posts between 1979 and 1981 and between 1993 and 1994; most recently she was minister of justice. She left Irish politics in 1997 and has been the Irish representative on the Court of Auditors since 1999. She does not have a scientific education and has no experience in science policy; the Irish Times reported earlier this week that Barroso's wish to have at least nine women on his commission played a role in her nomination by the Irish government.

That does not mean she's not a great candidate, says Frank Gannon, director-general of Science Foundation Ireland and a former head of the European Molecular Biology Organization.

Gannon, who lived across the street from Geoghegan-Quinn while he was at the University of Galway, says she is an "intelligent and straightforward person" with a "strong character." "I think she will bring a lot of qualities to the job," he says. Janez Potocnik, the current research commissioner, lacked science experience as well, "and he was an excellent commissioner," Gannon says.

News of Geoghegan-Quinn's selection was greeted with enthusiasm in Ireland and seen as a sign that the country's goal of becoming a science and high-tech hub is bearing fruit. “I am delighted to announce today that we have secured the hugely important research and innovation portfolio, which resonates very strongly with our own Smart Economy agenda,” Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Brian Cowen was quoted as saying by the Irish Times. Paul Rellis, managing director of Microsoft Ireland—a major player in the country's high-tech boom—called the nomination a "ringing endorsement" of the government's innovation agenda.

Austria, also hoping to bag the research post, had nominated its science minister, Johannes Hahn, but he ended up with the Regional Policy portfolio. Potocnik will stay on as a commissioner but will move to the Environment post.

In that position, he will have less clout than his predecessor, Stavros Dimas, because of Barroso's creation of a separate post for climate. Hedegaard, the woman to fill that job, served as a minister for Climate and Energy the past 2 years and will host the climate talks that start in Copenhagen next week. Hedegaard, 49, whom Time called one of the 100 most influential people in the world earlier this year, has been credited with giving Denmark a greener image. She is probably best known for showing world leaders the melting glaciers of Greenland, writes Danish journalist Jakob Illeborg:

For some time it seemed that "tour guide" ought to be her real job description. Just about anyone who can call him/herself a head of state has had the guided tour around the melting mountains of ice in the old Danish colony – as if Denmark was the only country in the world that had seen the light and now had been given the tough task of showing the brutal evidence to various world players while making sure the cameras were rolling.