FRANCE: Top researchers lost to the US

The brain drain of French academics and researchers to the United States has been accelerating in recent years, and although the number is relatively low it tends to be the most talented who choose to move, according to a report from think tank Institut Montaigne.

The report Gone for Good? Partis pour le Bon? - Les expatriés de l'enseignement supérieur français aux Etats-Unis by Ioanna Kohler, director of social policy programmes at the French-American Foundation US, in New York, says it is graduates of the elite French grandes écoles and the best universities who are being lured to the United States.

"French researchers and academics educated in the grandes écoles who have settled in the United States put the focus sharply on two major contradictions," says Kohler.

"On the one hand, their scientific talent lets France shine abroad but deprives it of its best elements; on the other hand, they have received an excellent education financed by French public funds but the fruit of this education does not benefit France in the long term."

Researchers born in France who emigrated to the US between 1990 and 2000 represented only 1.3% of researchers working in France in 2000, says the report.

But there was a "recent and worrying" acceleration of scientists as a proportion of French expatriates in the US, from 8% in the 1970s to 27% between 1996 and 2006, it says.

Between 1985 and 2008 only 2,745 French nationals prepared their doctorates in the US, according to the US National Science Foundation (NSF) - but 70% of them stayed there.

The numbers of French academics and researchers relocating in the US may be comparatively small, but they tend to be the best, says the study.

The report bases its conclusions on the incidence of researchers' international prizes and awards, and on publications in high-level scientific journals.

"Whatever the discipline, the overwhelming majority of professors and researchers who are French or educated in France and working in the United States graduated from French élite institutions" such as the Ecole Normale Supérieure or Polytechnique, says Kohler.

French academics who have moved to the US describe the advantages there compared with France in the report. These include:

* Working among the greatest talents in the world, thanks to the internationally open system of recruitment, "synonymous with competition and excellence".
* Higher pay than in France, especially at the start of a career. Researchers in the US earn between US$65,000 and $80,000, while senior university professors salaries range from $112,000 in the public sector to $140,000 in the private sector. In France pay ranges from about EUR30,000 (US$40,800) to EUR73,000.
* Good infrastructure - campus, laboratories and libraries. Campuses were usually outside towns and were "places of teaching, research and learning...above all a place for living". This was unlike the French university which, according to a French researcher quoted in the report, seemed "more like a place of passage than a place for living. Here, I like working in my office and I appreciate daily contact with my colleagues and students. Then, at 4pm every day, there's a mass of cultural activities on campus - conferences, films, concerts."
* Better working conditions and ample time to devote to research.
* Fairer recruitment and evaluation systems than in France, based on transparency and peer review rather than 'cliques' and 'clans' that "tend to encumber the French system".
* A flexible, uncompartmentalised system.
* An open disciplinary approach, with 'movable demarcation lines', that was less rigid and less conservative than the French system. "I find the American system more tolerant, more welcoming," said Professor Virginie Greene of Harvard University: "It's possible to display a certain amount of intellectual eccentricity".

The report proposes ways to encourage French researchers to return home:

* A census of French researchers and academics working abroad in the US and other principal countries of migration, and of foreign researchers who studied in France, to strengthen links with the scientific diaspora.
* A campaign for the French and French-educated scientific communities abroad to inform them of jobs and initiatives in France and an 'international dimension' to academic recruitment.
* Personalised recruitment procedures for the most talented, including modulable programmes for visiting professors and interdisciplinarity between university departments. Individual universities should "when necessary" forsake the usual salary scales and negotiate directly with researchers.
* Reception services, such as advice on entry procedures and finding accommodation, for talented foreign researchers who want to work in France, and their families. For returning French researchers, their time spent abroad should contribute towards career advancement and pension rights.
* Reciprocal trans-Atlantic mobility, increasing links and exchanges between researchers including grants, funding of one or two-year chairs, developing sabbaticals in France and joint ventures between universities, and breaking down linguistic barriers by publishing translations of major works and funding training programmes for translators, the report says.