A bright mind and an outstanding policymaker: A tribute to José Mariano Gago

José Mariano Gago and OECD Secretary-General Donald J. Johnston, at the 1999 OECD/CSTP Ministerial Meeting , chaired by José Mariano Gago.

With José Mariano Gago, the world has lost a brilliant scientist and an outstanding policymaker. He did not just decisively shape the policy landscape in Portugal; his intellectual rigour, charisma and generosity profoundly influenced the search for better policies in many countries. That is why we were so saddened when we learned that Mariano Gago had passed away on 17 April 2015.

José Mariano Gago was a distinguished particle physicist who prominently contributed to advance the debate on science, technology and higher education policy in Europe. He served as Portugal’s Minister for Science and Technology (1995-2002) and Minister for Science, Technology and Higher Education (2005-11).

Mariano Gago’s collaboration with the OECD spanned more than two decades. Few ministers have sustained so much dedication and commitment to the international agenda over such a long period. In 1999, he chaired the OECD Committee for Scientific and Technological Policy (CSTP) meeting at ministerial level which discussed the increased globalisation of research and development (R&D) and innovative activities. He was an impassioned advocate for science and technology (S&T) policy in the OECD, especially on issues of human resources for S&T. But he was also a pioneer of horizontal work, with ideas and approaches that transcended traditional disciplinary boundaries (or ministries). For example, he had intense interest in policies about the Internet and the digital economy. This translated into Portugal’s playing a key role on these issues both at the OECD and in other international forums such as ICANN.

Under his leadership, the Portuguese government launched the Commitment to Science initiative to promote public and private investment in science and technology. His period in office as minister led to the largest growth in modern times in building Portugal’s science base and capacity. The number of full-time researchers per thousand workers grew from 1.5 in the late 1980s to 7.2 in 2008; overall R&D expenditure as a proportion of GDP grew from 0.4% in the late 1980s to 1.5% in 2008; and business expenditure in R&D as a percentage of GDP grew from 0.2% in the late 1990s to 0.76% in 2008.

He was a tireless advocate for Portugal, always seeking to leverage its scarce resources by partnering with others, for example forging large-scale international collaborations with leading tertiary education research institutions such as Carnegie Mellon University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Mariano Gago also had an admirable interest in making research and technology more accessible and understandable to the general public, as reflected in the 1996 launch of the Ciência Viva (Living Science) programme to promote scientific and technological literacy among the Portuguese population.

Mariano Gago was committed to contributing to the common good and global agenda. But he also knew the right moment to bring in the global community to advance the Portuguese agenda. In 2005, he asked the OECD to review tertiary education in Portugal to leverage global experiences with reforming tertiary education systems. And when he reported back to the OECD Education Policy Committee on progress in 2008, delegates from across the OECD were impressed by the breadth and the far-reaching nature of his reforms and, in turn, suggested the Portuguese experience could be useful for reform in other countries. The reform involved encouraging institutions to be more responsive to the needs of society and the economy (with further autonomy for institutions which could opt to become foundations); the creation of a new agency for quality assurance; stronger links to employers, regions and labour markets; emphasis on making student access more inclusive; the extension of the student support system; the increase of competitive funding; more effective university-industry links for research and innovation; and new strategies for internationalisation. Particularly refreshing was Mariano Gago’s concern for combating elitism in the system and expanding student numbers by embracing new publics.

It was no surprise then that countries asked Portugal to organise the final conference of the OECD Thematic Review of Tertiary Education, a three-year project reviewing tertiary education policy in 24 OECD countries, with the launch of the OECD report Tertiary Education for the Knowledge Society in Lisbon in 2008. This event brought together the Portuguese tertiary education community and tertiary education policymakers from over 30 OECD countries.

No doubt the success of the implementation of the reform owed a great deal to the remarkable intellectual and operational talents of Mariano Gago. He was particularly skilful at building political support by identifying and targeting influential individuals and winning them over. He also greatly valued international peer learning as any element for the successful implementation of the reform.

Mariano Gago’s infectious enthusiasm could be quickly disarming; minutes into a coffee or a beer you quickly found out that you had committed to giving him a special data extraction, attending one his many interesting conferences or helping a former student of his.

Mariano Gago will be dearly missed not only in his country but also by the international education and research communities, especially at the OECD. His vision and ideas will remain major references for science, technology and higher education policy. And as we say, people never die until they are forgotten.


This website in memory of José Mariano Gago was born from a spontaneous movement of the scientific community in Portugal.

©OECD Observer May 2015

Originally published on www.oecdinsights.org on 6 May 2015 

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