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Accueil / Groupes de travail / Europe / 2003-2006 : a major crisis in French research

2003-2006 : a major crisis in French research

Par Alain Trautmann, le 18 April 2006

A long lasting crisis between French scientists and their government started more than two years ago. The milestones of this crisis and an analysis of its roots are presented here. Some lessons of this crisis may be of more general interest to European researchers [1] [2].

"Sauvons la Recherche" and the 2004 crisis in France.

In January 2004, President Chirac mentioned research as one of his highest priorities for the nation. Strangely enough, a few months eearlier, his government had attempted to decrease the funds available for the CNRS, INSERM and other French research agencies by 30%. The heated reaction in the scientific community led to a slightly less dramatic budget cut. However, in November 2003, it was announced that the number of positions available for scientists and engineers in public research agencies would be reduced by 550. Thus, in january 2004, the scientific community began to realize the hypocrisy of president Chirac’s discourse. On january 7th, a text was published by 150 group leaders and lab directors who threatened to resign from their administrative responsibilities if the government did not reverse its decision to cut the public research effort. This text also called for a large consultation of scientists in hopes of establishing a set of reforms to improve the French research system. This call was put as a petition on the web site "Sauvons la Recherche" (SLR, i.e. "Let’s Save Research") created in march 2003 by a few scientists. In the following weeks, an informal group was set up to lead this movement, based on existing scientific networks. Initially formed by biologists from Paris, it rapidly extended to people from other cities and scientific fields.

Had the number of lab leaders ready to resign not increased, it would have been easy to replace them by more docile ones. However, within a few weeks, more than 200 000 people over the country joined the call by signing the petition either through the SLR website or on the streets during demonstrations. On March 9th, 1000 group leaders very officially met at the Paris Town Hall. Overall, more than 3000 group leaders resigned on this day. During the same period, the question of research was fiercely debated in various media and on the streets. The population understood that scientists were not reclaiming better working conditions for themselves, but that their demand concerned the future of the country as a whole. However, neither the government nor the President seemed ready to listen. On March 19th, a record 30000 researchers and supporters demonstrated in Paris and in other major cities. It was a lively march, with large portraits of famous scientists like Marie Curie being brandished alongside those of young post-docs who, on the same day, were gathering in support in the USA, Japan, or elsewhere abroad.

Public understanding of scientists

On March 29th, regional elections took place all over the country which resulted in a severe defeat for the candidates of the majority. Political observers agreed that the inappropriate handling of this crisis by the government contributed to the outcome of the vote. Two days later, in response to this defeat, President Chirac decided to replace the government. On April 9th, the new Minister of Education announced a number of decisions, giving into all the immediate demands. Thus, he went back on the 550 jobs cuts, and furthermore created 1000 new university positions. The minister announced that a new law for research would be discussed at the beginning of 2005, which did not leave much time for scientists to come up with propositions. "Sauvons la Recherche" and a newly created "Initiative and proposition committee", including members of SLR, well known scientists, and co-chaired by Etienne-Emile Baulieu et Edouard Brézin, respectively President and vice-President of the French Academy of Sciences, organised a huge consultation of scientists. Using the SLR network, widely open to any interested party, the consultation was organized throughout the country. Propositions from 30 different cities or regions were gathered in July, summarized during the summer, discussed again during the autumn. On october 28-29, a meeting was held in Grenoble, gathering 800 scientists. This process was called the "Etats Généraux de Grenoble" (EGR), in reference to the "Etats Généraux" that took place in Paris in 1789. The resulting text consisted of a thorough audit of the research problems in France, together with a large number of propositions of reform. It was officially presented to the ministers of Education and Research a few days after the meeting.

Wavering policy of postponing

The government then adopted a wavering policy, postponing month after month a law project that was finally released in November 2005. A non offical project "leaked" (probably released by the finance ministry) in January 2005 which was so completely at odds with the propositions of the EGR that it triggered several demonstrations throughout 2005. The activity was also intense on the SLR website, and research remained present in various medias. Discussions between SLR, research unions and the government were regularly organized, but as the latter refused to release an official project, they were without clear basis and rather useless. To further complicate the issue, after the vote of 29 may 2005 that rejected the European Constitution Treaty, President Chirac decided to once again change the government; the new ministers of Education and Research were unfortunately rather ignorant of the issue.

Although the law project was continuously postponed, the successive governments made several important decisions regarding research. One was to create 67 so-called "competitiveness clusters" all over the country, in order to boost relationships between research and local industries. Decisions were made by experts selected by the Ministry of Industry. More importantly, in February 2005, a new agency was created, ANR (Agence Nationale de la Recherche). This research funding agency had 350 millions euros to distribute within the course of the year. There was less than 5 months to name a group of experts, allow them to choose the main research themes, publicly release the grant program, and have the researchers apply for the various grants. Reviewing over 5000 grant applications with few experts was an impossible mission, and many problems were encountered in this process: applications not reviewed or applicants receiving for review their own project; ill designed grant proposals for which there were so few French teams in the field that they were guaranteed acceptance, regardless of the quality of their project, whereas in other fields the competition was fierce. Without taking the time to correct these problems, the ANR budget was raised by 70% in 2006, and is expected to reach 1300 million euros in 2010. The corresponding funds do not come from the state budget but from the revenue earned through the sale of public companies, a funding source certain to dry up soon. Therefore, the mighty ANR may well be a giant with feet of clay. As the ANR budget was rocketing, the government decided to put a ceiling on the budget of pre-existing research organisations, i.e. universities and other public research institutions like CNRS, INSERM or INRA.

Immediately after the publication of the law project regarding research, in November 2005, the government suddenly decided that it should be debated at the Parliament under a so-called “emergency procedure”. It was voted by the Senate in December 2005 and by the National Assembly in March 2006. The existing government controlled both chambers, thus the text was voted with virtually no change. The law text uses the vocabulary of the "Etats Généraux de la Recherche", but completely denatures its meaning, and the general principles found in the law are actually those that triggered the initial crisis. This law is anything but a good solution to the French research problems.

Origin of the research crisis in France

The triggering events that led to the recent crisis between scientists and the French government, and the causes of its amplification (denial of reality by the government, repetitive changes of the ministers) have been mentioned above.

This law should officially program the research effort in France for the next few years. According to the numbers given by the government, the amount of money devoted to research should increase by 4% every year until 2010, in a country where inflation is around 2%, and the annual GNP increase is also of the order of 2%. Thus, despite the declarations of the government, the relative effort of the country for research is not going to change much, and the Lisbon objective of 3% of the GNP devoted to research in 2010 is totally out of reach. A particular effort should have been made for the young researchers, in order to reduce the brain drain, and to attract the most brilliant ones to scientific carreers. A time-scheduled program for scientific employment should have absolutely been included in the law, but the government refused to do so.

Scientists under control

One of the main reasons for the government decisions in 2003 was its will to reduce public expenses, and in particular the number of civil servants. Research was severely targeted as it was considered as a branch where workers are unable to efficiently protest. The government still claims that the budget for public research (around 1.2% of the GNP) is larger than average in Europe, and that all additional effort, necessary to reach the 3% objective, should be made by private companies. This figure of 1.2% is highly disputable, as it includes a series of sectors (nuclear research, aeronautics, inhabited spatial flights) which are part of industrial more than research programs, and weigh much more in France than in any other European country. When these programs are not taken into account, the public effort for research is closer to 0.6% of the GNP.

Another key issue is that the government wants to tightly control researchers’ activities. As an example, the new funding agency (ANR) has no scientific council, so that it may be directly controlled by the Ministry of Research. In a few years, its budget will be several times that attributed by the CNRS to its labs, the latter’s budget being planned to stagnate or even decrease. Thus in the future, all scientific policy, down to the smallest detail, will be in the hands of non-scientists in the ministry’s administration. Under these conditions, the mere existence of the CNRS (considered as too difficult to control, and not performing enough applied research) becomes questionable. Associated with this desire of tighter political control is the incapacity to have a long term vision of how to develop research: our policy makers have a very naive but deeply-rooted belief that public research efforts should give results in a very short term, compatible with the horizon of the next election. Such a perspective is in deep contradiction with the needs of basic research.

Striking weakness of private research

This is not to say that the present public research system in France is perfect. A major problem is the weakness of research in French universities. The "Etats Généraux de la Recherche" have analyzed the causes of this situation and proposed a number of solutions for universities: reform of the decision making process, improvement of the evaluation system (presently, the research activity of professors and assistants is evaluated extremely rarely, and their teaching is never evaluated), increase of the budget, reduction in the annual teaching load (currently 192h per year). Using the quality of the research performed in the CNRS to strengthen research in universities (through common units that already exist, but the function of which could be improved) seems a much better alternative to weakening or even destroying the CNRS.

Another problem is the striking weakness of private research in France. This has a number of causes. One is that a large fraction of students that undertake scientific studies do not attend universities but professional schools (termed "Grandes Ecoles"), where they are trained mainly as engineers, and in most cases have no contact with research. This contributes to a dramatic lack of recognition of research in many private companies. In addition, a young PhD is considered as an eternal student, rather than someone with the highest scientific training, having received the highest university degree. A well-known company director recently said that an engineer from a "Grande Ecole" looses part of his value when he spends 3 years for getting a PhD ! Another cultural problem is the weakness of venture capital in France, which hampers the development of biotech companies in our country.

Future of research in Europe

The last two years of difficulties for research in France has led to numerous discussions and exchanges between scientists of all ages, disciplines, and professional categories. In the wake of this debate, I propose a summary of principles that should be taken into account to develop an ambitious and high quality research system in Europe.

-  Research is not only important for our future economic development; it is intimately linked to higher education and to expertise abilities. It is important for cultural and democratic reasons and cannot simply follow free market rules.

-  Research budgets should be considered as an investment rather than as a mere expense.

-  Basic research requires a long term vision. It cannot be governed by short term objectives, and through short-lived structures.

-  Research performed by a small number of well paid principal investigators, directing post-docs teams, will not last long. If Europe wants to train and retain high quality researchers, it has to offer them attractive working conditions, with a reasonable probability of obtaining working contracts of unlimited duration. Countries unable to offer such positions waste their investment in the formation of young researchers, systematically lost to the brain drain to countries with a better research policy.

-  A European Charter and code of conduct for recruitment of researchers has already been adopted by a number of organizations including CNRS and INSERM. It is important that in all European countries scientists ask their national organizations to adopt it.

-  Private companies have the responsibility of their own research, generally oriented to relatively short term projects. Governments have the responsibility of basic research. Its cost has to be covered by taxes, and is not compatible with a general policy of systematic tax reduction.

-  European research will have to be supported both at the level of each country and at the Union level. The present union investment for research is largely insufficient. The European Research Council (ERC) will be a major tool for developing basic research, and more generally for building Europe, without the sterilizing obsession of juste retour(return investment policy). Its present foreseen budget (around 1 billion euros/year) is probably three times smaller than is necessary for efficient action.

-  For the elaboration of European research policies, the existence of open spaces allowing informal exchanges between researchers is important. They should not be limited by state or disciplinary frontiers. "Sauvons la Recherche" has launched a new webpage, in English, that is open to such international contributions.

Even though the immediate consequences of the research crisis in France, as reflected in the government policy, are quite disappointing, an important and positive consequence is the improvement in the dialogue amongst French scientists, as well as with the population in general. We would be very happy if a similar open discussion was now taking place at the European level.

[1] I wish to thank Kimo Meehan and Georges Debrégeas for their excellent correction of my English

[2] This paper can also be read in the first issue of Lab Times ; see http://www.lab-times.org