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Scientists protest European Commission’s downplaying of research and education

27 September 2019

The name of a broadened portfolio sparks concern about narrowed priorities.

Ursula von der Leyen.
Ursula von der Leyen speaks to the European Parliament on 16 July before her confirmation as president-elect of the European Commission. Credit: © European Union 2019 – EP, CC BY 4.0

A reorganization of the European Commission (EC), the European Union’s executive branch, has led scientists across the continent to express concerns about the priorities of EC leadership.

On 10 September, EC president-elect Ursula von der Leyen, whose five-year term begins in November, announced that responsibility for previously separate programs related to “research and innovation” and “education, youth, sport, and culture” will be assigned to a single commissioner. The name of the combined portfolio is slated to be “innovation and youth.” In an open letter, European scientists are calling for “research” and “education” to be added to that title.

“Words may have consequences,” says Fabio Zwirner, a physicist at the University of Padua and a vice president of the European Research Council (ERC), the EC’s main funding mechanism for frontier research. “Many people fear that in the current political and financial climate, the wording of the title may be a signal for lower emphasis of the EC on curiosity-driven frontier research in favor of other investments that are believed to have more immediate economic or societal impact.”

The European Parliament will conduct hearings on von der Leyen’s proposed portfolios and commissioners from 30 September through 8 October.

In a letter to commissioner-designate Mariya Gabriel, von der Leyen writes that “education, research and innovation will be key to [the European Union’s] competitiveness and our ability to lead in the transition to a climate-neutral economy and new digital age.” She mentions the roughly €100 billion ($110 billion) Horizon Europe framework program for research and innovation for 2021–27, saying that Gabriel “should ensure sufficient investment flows to disruptive research and breakthrough innovations” and that “to stay competitive globally, we should better support our innovators to bring their ideas to the market.” And von der Leyen emphasizes mobility across Europe for students.

But scientists point out that the letter to Gabriel makes no mention of the ERC, although its budget is expected to be about €16.6 billion. And they worry that highlighting “innovation and youth” suggests that research and education may become lower priorities and could suffer as the details of the Horizon Europe budget are hammered out.

Mariya Gabriel.
Mariya Gabriel (left), European commissioner for digital economy and society, speaks with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker (center) and Security Union commissioner Julian King in 2018. Gabriel will be in charge of the innovation and youth portfolio in the von der Leyen administration. Credit: Yordan Simeonov (EU2018BG), CC BY 2.0

Alexander Rothkopf of the University of Stavanger in Norway is one of eight physicists who initiated the open letter to European Parliament president David Maria Sassoli and to the outgoing and incoming EC presidents. “We believe that removing the terms ‘education’ and ‘research’ from the title and leaving in only ‘innovation’ focuses too narrowly on economic exploitability and understates the importance of basic research,” says Rothkopf. The open letter also notes that the proposed portfolio name “reduces ‘education’ to ‘youth,’” even though education is relevant to people of all ages.

The letter demands that the portfolio be called “Education, Research, Innovation and Youth” to reflect Europe’s dedication to all of those crucial areas. As of 27 September, more than 9900 scientists—including 18 Nobel laureates—from across Europe and beyond had signed the letter.

Commission spokesperson Mina Andreeva says that the innovation and youth portfolio goes beyond the two words in its name. Pointing to the mission letter, she says that “research and education is all there. Reducing the significant importance of research and education to a debate around a title does not do justice to the importance of these subjects in the future von der Leyen Commission.”

Though many university leaders agree with scientists that the portfolio name should reflect its purview, they also largely welcome the pairing of the education and research directorates. “We have pushed for years for an integrated strategy,” Peter-André Alt, president of the German Rectors’ Conference, wrote in a 11 September statement. Similarly, the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities wrote in an open letter to Gabriel that it is “grateful for the Commission’s recognition of the close ties and synergies.”

Still, the move raises some eyebrows. The two areas are funded differently, with education funded almost entirely at a national, regional, or local level and research funded both by member countries and on the European scale. The combined portfolio is a huge mandate, and scientists and university personnel want to be sure that important issues don’t fall through the cracks.

Zwirner is hopeful that European Union legislators will address the science community’s concerns during its upcoming hearings. “Things are in evolution,” he says. “There are signs that the European Parliament is paying attention.”

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