BRUSSELS--A few weeks later than expected, Europe has a new leader at the helm of science policy. Slovenian economist Janez Potocnik will oversee a $22 billion research fund, Framework 6, as well as development of its successor, Framework 7. If the new commissioner gets his way, that program will double in size during his 5-year term.

Potocnik and the other 24 members of the European Union's leadership group were due to be sworn in on 1 November, but controversy over Italy's nominee for justice commissioner caused a delay (Science, 5 November, p. 959). After new candidates were named from Italy and Latvia, and the Hungarian nominee shifted portfolios, the Parliament approved the slate on 18 November. The new commission took office on 22 November.

Potocnik and the other 24 members of the European Union's leadership group were due to be sworn in on 1 November, but controversy over Italy's nominee for justice commissioner caused a delay (Science, 5 November, p. 959). After new candidates were named from Italy and Latvia, and the Hungarian nominee shifted portfolios, the Parliament approved the slate on 18 November. The new commission took office on 22 November.

Potocnik and the other 24 members of the European Union's leadership group were due to be sworn in on 1 November, but controversy over Italy's nominee for justice commissioner caused a delay (Science, 5 November, p. 959). After new candidates were named from Italy and Latvia, and the Hungarian nominee shifted portfolios, the Parliament approved the slate on 18 November. The new commission took office on 22 November.

An economist, Potocnik seems keenly interested in linking science to social and industrial growth. In a conversation with Science before taking office, Potocnik stressed that research is an indispensable part of the Lisbon Strategy, a 10-year plan endorsed by European leaders in 2000 that calls for sustainable economic growth in balance with environmental protection and Europe's traditionally generous social policies. Part of the strategy requires Europe to boost its R&D spending from 1.9% of gross domestic product in 2000 to 3% by 2010. To work toward that goal, Potocnik will make his case for doubling the budget for the Framework 7 program--which would boost E.U. research spending to $13 billion per year between 2007 and 2013. If Europe wants to come close to meeting the Lisbon goals, he says, it must devise a formula in which "knowledge, science, and research are definitely playing a major role."

Potocnik, who has little background in the natural sciences, admits that he has a lot to learn. "Since high school, this has been the peak of my learning curve," he says of his first months preparing to take over the research portfolio. At least at first, he has said he will hew close to the priorities of his predecessor, Belgian former commissioner Philippe Busquin, now a member of the European Parliament (Science, 10 September, p. 1551). During a 1 October confirmation hearing in the European Parliament, Potocnik said, "There is no need for revolution. There is a strong need for evolution of what has been achieved." He has expressed strong support for the idea of a European Research Council (ERC), a basic science-funding body that has strong grass-roots support among scientists across Europe and which Busquin embraced toward the end of his term. The new chief will inherit some problems as well. Researchers have made impassioned calls for less red tape in the grantmaking process, for example. Potocnik says he is empathetic, and he is already advocating a two-tier application system that would allow scientists to submit an outline or abstract of a project for initial evaluation. Only those that make this first cut would be asked to put together a full application. "Since the acceptance rate is very low, quite a lot of that time is thrown away" in the current system, he says.

Potocnik speaks enthusiastically about the role of small- and medium-sized enterprises--SMEs in E.U. lingo--as drivers for scientific research. Although some basic researchers have complained about the E.U.'s emphasis on applied research--about 15% of the current Framework budget is dedicated to funding SMEs--Potocnik sees them as key in using science to boost Europe's economy. That enthusiasm doesn't bother Jose Mariano Gago, former Portuguese science minister and head of a group lobbying for the ERC, who says, "I think he understands quite well that scientific development in Europe needs a coalition of everyone."

Potocnik is diplomatic when asked if any particular area of science has caught his interest since taking on the research job. "In practically all the areas you touch, you see interesting things going on," he says. "It's a wonderful world of science." It is a world Potocnik will now have plenty of chance to explore--and shape--in the coming years.

Reposted with permission from Science News, 19 November 2004