Researchers in France are uniting in protest against planned reforms they claim will lead to political control of public research and loss of autonomy for the nation's research organisations, such as the multi-disciplinary National Centre for Scientific Research. More than 600 directors of laboratories and members of national scientific authorities gathered in Paris earlier this month to express their fears for the future of public research.
Their meeting, at the prestigious Collège de France, was prompted by a speech in January by President Nicolas Sarkozy which set out his vision for French research – and sent shock-waves through the scientific community. The president praised France's scientists as "exceptional" but criticised the system that made "the reputation of our universities suffer in international rankings which are based on their scientific results".
"We must have the courage to recognise the disease and treat it," he said and dismissed the claims of those who said research bodies should form scientific policy as it was the function of parliament and the government, especially the minister in charge of research, to allocate public money and to fix strategic objectives.
"If not, I don't know what use a ministry serves. It's not for an organisation, however important, respected and powerful, to define the scientific policy of our country," Sarkozy said.
Universities would be at the centre of France's research effort, he added, while the functions of big research organisations would be 'redefined' to make them resource agencies following government policies, rather than operators. They would retain only those activities which would benefit from national coordination, such as super calculators, major installations and technological infrastructure. All other research activities would be developed in university laboratories "in a spirit of honest and profitable competition".
Sarkozy repeated a promise made before his election last year that by 2012 France would devote 3% of Gross National Product to research, compared with 2.12% in 2006. This "massive budgetary effort" for research, amounting to an extra €15 billion, would "demonstrate unequivocally the utmost importance we shall attach to its expansion in the next five years", he said.
But the state will contribute only €4 billion of this largesse, leaving an unprecedented contribution to be provided by the private sector. Meanwhile, Le Monde reported that some laboratories' operating budgets, which cover not only running expenses and supplies but are also essential for setting up new research projects, have been slashed by up to 24%.
Opponents of the reforms outlined by Sarkozy, many of them supporters of action group Sauvons La Recherche (SLR), are worried that the government's policies lack coherence and are leading to more short-term projects at the expense of long-term basic research. They are also concerned at the lack of career prospects to attract young people, and that the number of fixed-term contracts is increasing at the expense of tenured posts.
At the meeting in Paris, anxieties largely focused on the fate of the national centre to which Valérie Pécresse, Minister for Higher Education and Research, had just presented reform plans. The laboratory directors and scientific officials present predicted the big research institutions, exemplified by the centre, would lose their autonomous status and find themselves reduced to mere funding agencies.
Restructuring the centre and other specialised organisations, such as Inserm, the health and medical research institute, will mark a further stage in recent research reforms. In 2005 the National Research Agency was created to commission and fund research programmes according to government planning priorities. Framework legislation, the Pact for Research, came into force the following year with the aim of improving the international standing of French research, making scientific careers more attractive and promoting public-private research cooperation.
Finally, after the 2007 presidential and general elections, the incoming conservative government introduced the Universities' Freedoms and Responsibilities law to increase autonomy of universities and expand their research functions. A working group appointed by Pécresse is now due to report on partnerships between research organisations and higher education establishments. While the Minister has said the system needs streamlining and the future of the national centre was not at risk, researchers fear a hastening of the dismantling of the organisations.
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