Spain's new government has appointed former astronaut Pedro Duque as minister for Science, Innovation and Universities. The decision stands in contrast to some other governments that seem to think the less you know about science the more suited you are to make decisions about it. It also rebuffs the previous government, which didn't think a science minister was required at all.
Duque has a degree in aeronautical engineering from Madrid's Universidad Politécnica. He began working with the European Space Agency (ESA) in 1986 and became the first Spaniard in space in 1998 aboard the space shuttle Discovery. He followed this in 2003 with a 10-day mission to the International Space Station.
Duque's missions studied the effects of weightlessness on humans and other lifeforms and made observations of the Sun.
No one gets chosen for missions like these without some serious scientific capability, but Duque's achievements didn't stop once he returned to Earth. In 2006 he took leave from ESA to lead a project with Deimos Imaging studying Earth through a combination of satellites and ground stations.
In 2011 Duque returned to ESA to head their Flight Operations Office, most recently has controlling and reviewing future ESA missions. He has also maintained a role as a science communicator with a large following, a sort of Spanish-language equivalent of Commander Chris Hadfield.
“It is a great privilege to be able to transfer my experience as an astronaut, project manager, and space sector CEO to my new role in the government,” Duque said in an ESA announcement of the decision. “I am looking forward to increasing awareness in science and technology among Spanish citizens.”
Unlike in countries that follow the Westminster System, Spain does not require ministers to be members of parliament, so the new Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez was able to offer Duque the position on forming his new cabinet. Other non-parliamentarians sworn in at the same time include Spain's leading anti-terror prosecutor and a popular novelist. The cabinet has 11 women among 18 members.
The new cabinet came about because, with no party holding a majority in the Spanish parliament, a small regional party withdrew its support for the government of previous Prime Minister Mariano Rojay, allowing Sánchez to take over, albeit in a minority government.
Although a new election is anticipated within two years, Duque's appointment has been welcomed by leading Spanish scientists. Under Rojay science has experienced a considerable funding squeeze, something Duque opposed, as well as the indignity of seeing the ministerial position demoted to a secretary to the economy minister.