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.