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Accueil / Les archives / Archives 2004 / International - Let’s save research ! / LET’S SAVE RESEARCH ! (traduction)

LET’S SAVE RESEARCH ! (traduction)

Par Bertrand Monthubert, le 29 janvier 2004

Translation of an Open Letter to the Government January 7, 2004, "Sauvons la Recherche"

To be signed by every research staff, including non-permanent staff, regardless of their laboratory affiliation. All of the petitioners support the following statement and seek to direct the government’s attention to the extreme gravity of the situation. Without a rapid and satisfactory response from the government, the petitioners with administrative responsibilities are committed to resign their positions (see end of text).

At the dawn of the 21st century, France needs dynamic research. Such activity is necessary for future innovation, the economic development of our country, as well as its cultural influence abroad. In the current economic context, countries that do not maintain a top-flight research capacity will fail to keep up with the increasingly rapid economic changes related to the production of knowledge. Even more seriously, moreover, they will fast become incapable of training young generations in a competitive manner. They will thus enter a condition of economic dependency that will be difficult to reverse.

To hold that it is possible to limit research to a few priority areas is to start down a road towards underdevelopment. Useful and profitable applications come and will continue to come out of applied research. However, the latter depends on the use of new tools and concepts emerging out of fundamental research. As the objective of fundamental research is the development of knowledge, regardless of any considerations of profitability, its funding can only come, for the most part, from public sources. This primary responsibility of the State cannot be transferred to private charitable organizations or to international structures, even though researchers often find substantial additional funding from these donors.

In France, fundamental research is currently being abandoned by the State. This policy will irremediably provoke a collapse of all applied research. This process has already begun, for instance, with the closing of private research centers (Aventis, Pfizer) that prefer to conduct their applied research activities in a country where strong links exist between fundamental and applied research : the United States. One cannot emphasize strongly enough that American private industry massively depends on the public sector. In the health sector, on the whole, major pharmaceutical companies function as financial companies specializing in buying out successful start-ups that have developed out of the academy. But there is almost no private pharmaceutical research left in the US, and the same holds true in Europe. If American congressmen, whatever their political affiliation, have voted for the immense and repeated NIH budget increases proposed by the Clinton Administration, it is because biologists have managed to rally the pharmaceutical industry to their cause, convincing the government to allocate federal money to academic research so that the country will maximize its benefits from innovative research.

Despite official statements claiming that research is a national priority, the French government is in the process of shutting down the public research sector without considering that there is nothing to replace it. It is financially asphyxiating public research institutions. Following the cancellation of allocations and the non-payment of credits voted by the Parliament (By December 2003, 50% of the CNRS working capital financing for 2002 had still not been paid !), further cuts in research allocations place several EPSTs (Etablissements Publics à caractère Scientifique et Technique/Public Scientific or Technical Institutions, such as the CNRS, the INSERM, or the INRA) and EPICs (Etablissement Public Industriel et Commercial/Public Industrial and Commercial Institution, such as the CEA) on the verge of bankruptcy. While research is a long-term pursuit and thus needs clear prospects for the future, the government has decided to drastically reduce the number of public positions for young researchers (for example, the number of researchers hired at the INSERM in 2002 was 95 ; only 30 positions are scheduled for 2004). Coinciding with a massive wave of retirement among senior French researchers, this policy will cause the already increasing gap between France and similar countries to become irreversible, a situation that will be reached all the more rapidly as young scientists will continue to emigrate in even greater numbers.

The central guidelines of scientific policy should be publicly controlled. But the government cannot at the same time disengage the State and guide research with methods that may paralyze it. Thus, the means of intervention are becoming more and more concentrated in the hands of the Ministry. The distribution of public research funds is now carried out through improvised and temporary channels whose main purpose is to deprive the EPSTs (including universities) and EPICs of their capacity to intervene. Emergency ad hoc committees are created to decide on the allocation of massive funds to exceptional programs ; experts are hastily appointed to choose which young researchers will receive financial support. Created for the sake of improved efficiency in research orientations, these practices cause both the multiplication of short-term committees with often opaque evaluation standards, and the mobilization of considerable energy that could be devoted instead to the management of EPST and EPIC laboratories. The irony is that scientific experts can only be found in laboratories where true competence prevails that is to say, in the EPSTs and EPICs. Surely, governmental direction is necessary for the establishment of major infrastructures, the creation of specific institutions, such as the Maisons de l’Homme for the social sciences, and the development of research applications. This guidance, however, needs to be implemented in a transparent manner and in conjunction with research institutions, avoiding both improvisations and abrupt policy changes. It also needs to be accompanied by unconditional support to fundamental research, in all its diversity, and its decisions must only be based on standards of scientific excellence.

There is no example of scientific research that is exclusively orchestrated and controlled by a Ministry. It is a scientific and bureaucratic illusion to believe in such a scenario, as many politicians of every political affiliation seem to. Valuable research cannot exist without powerful research institutions and universities capable of responding to changes in the international scientific environment. Even though it is necessary to lucidly analyze research structures and practices and to implement certain changes, as many petitioners have known for quite some time, we must very strongly reaffirm that these research institutions are the very place in which to find the scientific practices and skills that are indispensable for educating youth, responding to the rapid evolution of knowledge, and assessing results.

The petitioners consider it their responsibility to act collectively against the planned destruction of France’s research capacity. As a consequence : 1) We request that overdue funding (the 2002 endowment remains unpaid) be immediately disbursed to research institutions. 2) We request that the number of positions offered to young researchers in the 2004 national recruiting competitions be significantly increased. 3) We call for the mobilization of all researchers so that the seriousness of the situation can be appreciated by political and economic actors, as well as by the French public. We ask the Ministry of Research to start organizing, as soon as possible, A NATIONAL RESEARCH CONVENTION, which could be modeled after the conference in Caen that initiated the spectacular rebirth of French research in the 1960s. Such a conference will convene all of the economic and political actors involved in research and address every issue shaping the dynamics and responsiveness of our research system. It will aim to completely redesign a sector that is vital for the future of the citizens of this country, and yet one from which so many young people are now turning away. It should lead to the establishment of a long-term policy aimed at providing attractive job and career opportunities to young researchers.

If the public authorities do not grasp the great importance of the situation, particularly the despair felt by young researchers that is now threatening the viability of our laboratories, and IF THESE DEMANDS ARE NOT MET IN THE EMERGENCY FASHION THAT THE GRAVITY OF THE CURRENT CRISIS REQUIRES, THE PETITIONING DIRECTORS OF RESEARCH UNITS AND TEAMS WILL COLLECTIVELY RESIGN FROM THEIR POSITIONS.

They are fully aware of the serious consequences such a decision would entail. But they see no other recourse for communicating their objective of defending young researchers to government officials, economic leaders, and the general public.

The petitioners are urging directors and members of CNRS and INSERM commissions, faculty and staff members of all other EPSTs and EPICs, groups of young researchers, and presidents of learned societies to join this protest movement against the dismantling of French research capacities. They are also calling on university professors and research assistants to join the movement. Also victims of such governmental policies, these researchers are in a position to explain the stakes of the situation to students, who in turn can then decide if they wish to join this movement.

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