Bulgarian politician Mariya Gabriel has been named as the European commissioner to oversee research in a sprawling portfolio.

Mauro Bottaro/European Union

EU research commissioner named, but lacks ‘research’ in her title

Mariya Gabriel, a conservative politician from Bulgaria, is slated to become the next European research chief—although her job title, unlike that of her predecessors, doesn’t include the words “research” or “science.” If approved by the European Parliament, she will become commissioner for innovation and youth in November, the European Commission’s President-elect Ursula von der Leyen announced on 10 September. Gabriel will be responsible for spending billions of euros in a portfolio covering education, research, innovation, culture, youth, and sport policies—areas that are now split between two commissioners.

Some researchers and science policy experts worry the new job title could signal a reduced standing for science within von der Leyen’s proposed executive branch for the European Union, made up of 26 commissioners. “I'm rather concerned with ‘research’ dropping from the portfolio name of our commissioner,” says Maud Evrard, head of policy affairs at Science Europe, an association of research organizations based in Brussels. But others say the new, merged position will wield a large budget and have the power to bridge related policies. Bringing the portfolios together will give education, research, and innovation more “weight and visibility,” says Robert-Jan Smits, former director-general for research for the commission who is now president of the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands.

Despite growing EU budgets, the research commissioner’s role lacks prestige, complained the incumbent research commissioner Carlos Moedas in a tweet he posted before von der Leyen’s announcement. “The truth is that nobody was talking about or interested by the next R&D Commissioner,” he wrote. “In the last 5 years, I really tried to put this portfolio on the map. We have still a long way to go.”

Research was hardly mentioned in von der Leyen’s press conference in Brussels, which emphasized climate action and a transition to a digital society with scarce mention of the role of scientific research in these areas. When asked about Gabriel’s growing responsibilities, compared with her current job as commissioner for the digital economy, von der Leyen said the Bulgarian commissioner is “the perfect person to move on to the huge portfolio of research and innovation.” She added, “Research and innovation is the basis for a successful economic sector.” A former defense minister in Germany, von der Leyen also made a plea for EU-funded defense research and procurement. (Last year, the commission proposed a huge funding boost in this area, which largely remains the turf of national governments.)

The first item on Gabriel’s to-do list, laid out in von der Leyen’s mission letter, is the implementation of Horizon Europe, the next 7-year program for research and innovation, which will begin in 2021. The program’s budget now stands at €94 billion, but EU member states and the European Parliament must approve it.

As part of Horizon Europe, von der Leyen’s letter asks Gabriel to “ensure sufficient investment flows to disruptive research and breakthrough innovations, notably through the European Innovation Council [EIC].” Moedas’s brainchild, the EIC provides grants and equity funding for entrepreneurs, small companies and scientists, and is now in a pilot phase. The letter doesn’t mention the European Research Council, a funding agency for basic research with a budget of €13.1 billion for the current 7-year period.

Gabriel will bring to the job years of experience within EU institutions. She has degrees in French language and political science and had been a member of the European Parliament since 2009 before becoming European commissioner for the digital economy and society in 2017. Her current responsibilities include funding research in cloud computing, robotics, and cellular networks.

The fact that Gabriel is not a scientist is not a problem and her understanding of EU machinery will be valuable for budget negotiations for Horizon Europe, says Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities in Leuven, Belgium.

She will have to work with two director-generals, the civil servants who lead the commission’s departments for education and research. “The commissioner has no money and no staff, but has political responsibility. The director-general has staff and money, but no political responsibility,” Smits says. “The two need to form a team.” 

Members of the European Parliament will question Gabriel at a public hearing to be held between 30 September and 8 October. Smits said she “sailed through” the hearing for her current job 2 years ago. If confirmed, Gabriel will begin her 5-year term along with 25 other commissioners in November.