Europe's New Research Chief: Yes, I Can

BRUSSELS--She had been on the job for barely a few hours, but during a 1-hour chat with a dozen reporters yesterday the woman who will hold Europe's top science policy job for the next 5 years oozed self-confidence and a can-do attitude. Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the Irish politician who was confirmed as the E.U's new Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science on Tuesday, promised to tackle all of the intractable problems in E.U. science policy--but she avoided going into details.

Geoghegan-Quinn said she decided to hold an interview on her very first day--despite being new to the field--because she wants to improve communication about E.U. science and science policy: "There isn't really a communication policy at the heart of the directorate, and that is something I would like to change." A plainspoken woman herself, she hinted that she might retire "Framework Programme" (FP), the technocratic term for the E.U.'s massive research funding mechanism. "If you talk to an ordinary member of the public about FP6 or FP7, they're wondering, 'What the hell is this?' " she said.

She acknowledged that scientists might be worried by her complete lack of experience in science and science policy. "The only way I can learn is by meeting them, by listening to them, by hearing their concerns, and most of all by delivering for them," she said. But not being a scientist is actually an advantage, she claimed: "I have always said that a doctor should never be a minister of health and a lawyer should never be minister of justice. ... It's better to look at things with a fresh mind."

Policywise, Geoghegan-Quinn said research and innovation will be front and center in the new European Commission.

Geoghegan-Quinn will be key in developing Europe 2020, a new strategy that aims to boost the economy through knowledge. She said she'll work to make it easier for researchers to move across borders by harmonizing social security and pension plans; cut the legendary red tape involved in obtaining and managing European research money; increase the participation of small and midsize companies in E.U. research programs; and give innovative companies easier access to capital.

One reporter pointed out that he had seen at least three of her predecessors make similar promises. And didn't the Lisbon Agenda, another 10-year plan that aimed to raise research investments to 3% of GDP, fail miserably? Geoghegan-Quinn said that the economic crisis has changed everything, and that this time, the E.U. means business. Other than that, "all I can say to you today is that I am passionate, and I don't apologize for that. I intend to push to break down the barriers."

Photo Credit: European Communities, 2009