EUROPE: New commissioner to fight for research area

Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, nominated as the next EU Commissioner for research, science and innovation, has promised the European Parliament to complete a European Research Area where researchers' work can be undertaken in all 27 member states. In a confirmation hearing in Brussels, she also promised to address European society's 'grand challenges' during her five-year mandate.

Geoghegan-Quinn was a member of the Irish parliament from 1975 to 1997 and served as Minister of Tourism, Transport and Communication in 1992-93 and Minister of Justice in 1993-94. In 1999, she was appointed to the European Court of Auditors and was reappointed for a second term in 2006.

In her interrogation by the parliament's members, she emphasised this was the first time an EU research commissioner had responsibility for innovation. By implication, she was going to make the most of it by trying to develop a European 'research culture'.

She noted the EU had planned for a 3% increase in expenditure on research under the year 2000's EU Lisbon Process but had only achieved 1.8% so far: "What's causing this stagnation?" Geoghegan-Quinn asked rhetorically and then blamed excessive bureaucracy, the clumsiness of patent laws and a lack of urgency.

Referring to another EU initiative named after a capital city, she said: "I'm fully committed to the Ljubljana process (of 2008) which seeks to strengthen research cooperation between the EU and individual member states."

The Commissioner is likely to be confirmed in her job and take up her responsibilities on Tuesday week, 9 February. She told the European lawmakers she had a personal mandate from commission President José Manuel Barroso to do everything possible to move innovation and research to the heart of EU policy-making.

"And we need to cure the disconnection between science and society. We're good at research but less good at turning it into products," she declared.

Later this year, Geoghegan-Quinn will publish a report on how research funding can be made easier and swifter. Hers was an impassioned performance by a veteran Irish politician. It was well received by her numerous interrogators who even applauded her at the end of the three hour inquisition.

Developing the European Research Area was, she said, "a glorious opportunity to coordinate research in Europe and avoid duplication. I'm looking forward to the challenge of negotiating the research budget in the next financial perspective."

In this context she was asked about her attitude to increasing funding for those fields which were not profitable. She replied: "No matter what the research is, it's always valuable. It can always be used and the [EU's well-financed] 7th Research Framework Programme will continue to support all kinds of research, applied or not.

The European bugbear was duplication, Geoghegan-Quinn said. For example, the commission had discovered there were 72 different pieces of research across the bloc dedicated to the study of the same strain of salmonella.

She gave notice she would attack the EU's 'patent problem', namely the high cost of protecting intellectual property rights and accessing patents. In the latter case, the cost of patents in Europe is 20 times greater than in the US and this, too, remains a serious obstacle to competition.

Geoghegan-Quinn emphasised her commitment to "a comprehensive mid-term review of the union's Research Framework Programme" and said work on this would start this year.

She will have to draft priorities for the next 8th Framework Programme, which will start releasing funds in 2014. Also coming early in her mandate will be a policy paper on innovation that is intended to set out how innovation policies will help deliver the EU's 2020 strategy.

Among the issues under review will be public procurement, venture capital, intellectual property rights and knowledge-based training.

* Another key appointment is that of EU Commissioner of education, culture, multiculturalism, and youth, Cyprus' Androulla Vassiliou. In a detailed policy statement released to parliamentary members, Vassiliou said that in preparing students for a rapidly changing work environment it was important that post-secondary institutions be modernised.

"We must enable people to acquire new skills, to keep learning throughout their lives and equip them to take full advantage of new opportunities, such as in green economy," she said.

Vassiliou said she would be active in salvaging the EU technology and knowledge initiative, the Lisbon Strategy. Additionally, she plans to develop new partnerships among post-secondary institutions to "improve the quality and relevance of education".

She referred to the European Institute of Innovation and Technology as one potential partnership: "The [institute] points the way; we need innovative ways to learn and to create new knowledge and I will focus particularly on how it can make a real difference in this respect."

Vassiliou also plans to promote mobility among post-secondary students by encouraging them to pursue opportunities for studying abroad in other EU member countries to strengthen an "active sense of the European kinship".

*Additional reporting by Mitch Vandenborn