Máire Geoghegan-Quinn will need to make good use of her advisers to offset her lack of science background

The new European Commission has been sworn in, and an Irishwoman has been given responsibility for the new research and innovation portfolio. Career politician Máire Geoghegan-Quinn trained as a teacher, and will now be responsible for driving the EU’s science agenda. ’I am very excited about the next five years as commissioner,’ she said. ’I want to make sure we make full use of Europe’s research excellence, talent and entrepreneurial spirit.’

Marja Makarow, chief executive of the European Science Foundation, says it is ’absolutely essential’ that a member of the commission has a specific remit for science and innovation, particularly in the context of the Lisbon Strategy for a green and innovative economy. ’There can be no knowledge-based society without education, research and innovation, so it is an absolute must to have a commissioner dedicated to research issues,’ she says.

She adds that it is interesting that innovation has been combined with research in the terms of reference of the new commissioner; this was not the case with Geoghegan-Quinn’s predecessor, Janez Potocnik (now environment commissioner), whose brief was focused solely on science and research. However, other members of the commission will also be taking a lead on innovation, including industry and entrepreneurship commissioner Antonio Tajani. 

Maire Geoghegan-Quinn-300

Source: © European Commission

New European commissioner for research and innovation, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn

’I was quite enthusiastic about this combination when I first heard about it, but my enthusiasm was cooled down a little when I discovered that the notion of innovation is to be spread to many different activity areas of the commission,’ Makarow says. ’I am now afraid that it will be diluted, and the commission should be very vigilant not to let this dilution happen.’ 

It’s notable that the new commissioner does not have a track record in science. This runs counter to the demands recently made of the European Research Council, which was criticised for not having a scientist at the helm, and is now looking for a new director with a science background. This director will report to Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn. 

Makarow, however, does not believe that her lack of scientific expertise will be a problem. ’It’s not necessary to have a science background, although it is necessary to have a person with an appropriate level of education, and experience in how things work,’ she says. ’A person in such a position needs to have a vision and use political power to make it happen, and then make as good use of high profile experts as possible. This expertise is available, and she just has to use it.’ 

Sarah Houlton