Posted on behalf of Barbara Casassus.
French scientists are increasingly alarmed about what they see as a dearth of funds in labs and universities and poor prospects for those hoping to start a career in research. Meanwhile a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) agrees that the country’s great scientific tradition is in peril, but puts the blame on slow reforms.
The scientists’ protest started in mid-June with a plenary meeting of the National Committee on Scientific Research of the main basic research agency, the CNRS. Since then, other campus meetings have been held, and seven scientists from Montpellier University have called for a three week ‘march on Paris’ with participants converging on the capital by foot or bicycle during the Science Festival, which will take place from 27 September to 19 October. “We have had a more enthusiastic response to the initiative than we had expected,” says biologist Patrick Lemaire, who is one of the seven.
A website called Urgency of scientific employment was created two weeks ago, and has gathered more than 10,000 signatures for a petition demanding that the government immediately launch a long-term plan to create several thousand permanent scientific jobs “to avoid sacrificing an entire generation of young scholars”. The activists behind the petition pledged to continue the protest until the government gives in.
Coincidentally, the OECD warned last week that French science would continue its slow but steady decline over the next couple of decades. But the OECD sees the problem differently than the protesters. Although France has made some necessary changes in research and innovation in recent years, major blockages remain, the OECD’s review of innovation policy says. The stultifying pre-eminence of the basic research agency CNRS is still a major handicap, as are the lack of partnership research with business — despite a huge increase in public funding in that direction — and the continued support for underperforming universities, it adds.
The basic criticisms are not new, and for the OECD show that former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s reforms did not go far enough. Although Socialist President François Hollande’s government, which was elected in 2012, is sticking to the same line on some scores, such as maintaining university autonomy and Investments for the Future schemes, it is backtracking on others, such as shifting some funding back from project-driven to basic research (see ‘Hollande pledges to avoid cuts to France’s science funding‘).
The result is that prospects are bleak, and no one is happy — neither the pro- nor the anti-reformists. Key OECD recommendations include transferring responsibility for research policy and priorities from agencies to the state, and giving universities exclusive management control over mixed university-agency labs, which account for well over 90% of all those in the public sector. The necessary structures are in place, but they coexist alongside the old ones, with the result that each cancels the other out in efficiency and effectiveness, the OECD adds.
Even before the report was published, the government had responded by creating a 20-strong National Commission for the Evaluation of Innovation Policies. The commission is headed by Jean Pisani-Ferry, Commissioner-General for Policy Planning, who said last week that there is no deadline for results, but he hoped for some soon.
Commenting on the new body, Alain Trautmann, a cell biologist at the Cochin Institute in Paris and a founder of the advocacy group Sauvons la Recherche, says: “In France we have a technique that whenever you want to bury a problem, you create a commission to write a report about it.”