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Robert-Jan Smits at a Horizon 2020 launch event in Rome in 2014. Desiging and negotiating the €80 billion program is his “biggest pride,” Smits says.

Luigi Mistrulli/SIPA/AP Images

One of the most powerful science policy jobs in Brussels changes hands

It’s the end of an era at the European Commission’s research department: The most powerful civil servant in Brussels’s science policy circles, Director-General for Research and Innovation Robert-Jan Smits, is leaving his post. Smits has been named an adviser at the European Political Strategy Centre, the commission’s in-house think tank (where his exact mission is “still to be determined”); he will be succeeded by France’s Jean-Eric Paquet, now deputy secretary-general of the commission, on 1 April.

Smits will be remembered as an advocate for larger science budgets and as one of the architects of Horizon 2020—the European Union’s 7-year, €80 billion funding program for research and innovation, which started in 2014. He was also a staunch supporter of the European Research Council (ERC), the European Union’s beloved funding agency for basic research, which started giving out grants in 2007 and had a €1.8 billion budget last year. Smits has both a genuine interest in science and a deep knowledge of the commission’s workings, says former ERC President Helga Nowotny. He “knew how to put both at the service of European research and the scientific community,” and “will be missed,” she adds.

Directors-general are civil servants who run the departments that carry out EU policies and are less visible than the 28 commissioners—one per member state and per policy area. But Smits, a charismatic, well-liked bureaucrat with a steely handshake and a knack for networking, became an influential player of his own.

“My biggest pride is having designed and negotiated Horizon 2020, and being able in a period of crisis to raise the budget from €55 billion [in the previous 7-year period] to €80 billion,” Smits tells ScienceInsider. He says he hopes that the next budget—for the period 2021–27—will rise to at least €120 billion, as the European Parliament has requested, even though the European Union will lose the United Kingdom’s contribution when the country leaves the bloc next year.

Although directors-general generally stay in their posts for 5 years, Smits’s term stretched to almost 8 years. “It was time to move on,” he says, adding that the draft program for Horizon 2020’s successor, to be released at the beginning of June, is “80% ready.” Paquet will see the program through negotiations with the European Parliament and member states.

Smits, who is from the Netherlands, joined the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation (DG research) in 1989 and worked in different research policy roles until taking up the top post in July 2010. “When I started in the ’80s, colleagues [in other commission services] thought that we at DG research were people in white coats doing research ourselves,” he recalls. “Over the years, we have moved research and innovation out of their silo and embedded them in other policy areas.”

The portfolio has indeed earned prestige. Research and innovation programs now get the third largest chunk of the European Union’s budget, after agriculture and structural funds for regional development. Smits says his services are regularly brought in to help develop other EU policies—for instance related to the environment, energy, or transport—with science and innovation in mind. “In the old days, [other departments] wouldn’t invite us to the meetings, now they immediately reach out to us.” But Smits says more needs to be done to help bridge the scientific gap between the north and south of the European Union. “Some parts of the union are lagging behind and young people are leaving to other parts of the world,” he says.

This will be one of the challenges on his successor’s desk. Paquet joined the commission in 1993 and has worked in several policy areas, including transport, relationships with the western Balkans, and an ambassador stint in Mauritania.

He is no stranger to science policy. Between 2002 and 2004, he served as deputy head of cabinet of Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin, from Belgium. Busquin championed the idea of a European Research Area—where countries share research agendas and infrastructure, scientists and ideas move freely, and cross-border projects flourish—but this vision is “still far from being completed … as Brexit, among other challenges, reminds us,” Nowotny says. This experience will certainly come in handy as Paquet’s new job requires working closely with the current Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas, from Portugal.

The personnel changes at DG research are part of a wider reshuffle announced on 21 February. Signe Ratso, an Estonian national who has worked in the commission’s trade department for the past 12 years, will become deputy director-general for research. The reshuffle allows commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to make good on his promise to increase the number of women in senior management roles, 20 months before the end of his term. Women now hold 36% of the commission’s directors-general and deputy directors-general positions, up from 11% in November 2014 and close to the target of 40% by 31 October 2019.