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French scientists begin three-week protest march

Posted on behalf of Barbara Casassus, Paris

Protesters set off on a three-week march towards Paris on Friday.

Protesters set off on a three-week march towards Paris on Friday.

Sciences en Marche

Travelling by foot, bicycle or kayak, more than 3,000 scientists, support staff and members of the public from across France set off on Friday on a three-week march in defence of scientific research and higher education. The organizers say it is the biggest protest of its kind for 10 years.

The idea of the march was floated at the Montpellier University in June, following discussions about employment and job prospects for young researchers at a meeting of the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). “We realised we needed to bring together the whole scientific community – labs, universities, all disciplines, and all categories of staff,” says Patrick Lemaire, Montpellier University research biologist and president of the campaign group organizing the protest march, Sciences en Marche.

The protesters will arrive in Paris on 17 October, congregating in front of the country’s National Assembly. Their demands include a €10-billion plan to recruit an extra 3,000 agency and university research and support staff per year over the next decade. The protesters also want an overall budget increase of €20 billion or 8% over the same period, with a focus on recurrent spending for labs, and recognition of doctorates in collective bargaining agreements (contracts detailing duties and working conditions for employers and employees) with measures to promote PhD recruitment by businesses and the senior civil service.

The demands are unlikely to be met, as the French government has no room for manoeuvre on the cash front in the face of a stagnating economy. Not only has it been unable to rein in massive deficits, it is also asking the European Commission and Germany for a two-year delay to comply with an EU deficit limit of 3% of gross domestic product (GDP).

The aim also is to convince parliament to overhaul the research tax credit (Crédit d’Impôt Recherche, CIR) in the 2015 budget, a draft of which will be adopted by the cabinet on Wednesday together with a public finance plan for 2014-2019. The tax break will cost the state about €6 billion this year, and is criticized for benefitting big business rather than smaller, younger enterprises, and not producing the expected return. “It is also not targeted, which shows the government has no industrial strategy or policy,” says Lemaire.

The march coincides with a three-week annual government-sponsored Science Festival, and supporters include more than 110 labs, 350 CNRS lab directors, 10 universities, and several eminent scientists, including 2011 Nobel Prize winner Jules Hoffmann. Most of the 3,000 or so supporters have promised to join the march for at least part of the journey.

France’s Secretary of State for Higher Education and Research has met with a number of disgruntled researchers to hear their complaints and offer reassurance, to little avail. But France is not alone – there is also disquiet among researchers elsewhere in Europe. In Italy, scientists researchers are organizing a demonstration in Rome on 18 October, according to the online EuroScientist, and Let’s Save Research demonstrations continue to be staged in Spain.

The French scientific community largely supported the socialist government when it took office in 2012 and participated in national consultations about which recent reforms should be kept or dropped. But the honeymoon did not last long. “It became clear very quickly that the government has no courage and no vision for the future of science and higher education in France,” Lemaire told Nature yesterday. Moreover, the fact that higher education and research was demoted to a junior ministry when Prime Minister Manuel Valls took office in April “shows symbolically that the portfolio is a low priority for this government,” Lemaire adds.

 

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