Need to improve technology transfer to economy – Report

France carries out high quality research but does not get full value for the large amounts of public funding it currently spends on the sector, mostly because of weakness in transferring its inventions to the economy, according to a report by the Cour des Comptes, the national audit office.

The report was published a week before the Senate debated and adopted the latest higher education and research reform, the Loi d’Orientation pour l’Enseignement Supérieur et la Recherche, or ESR.

Research has been a national priority since introduction of the Pacte pour la recherche in 2006, and has been spared the budgetary and staff cuts suffered by other areas of government spending.

State funding for research and development in universities, public research centres and private companies increased from €14 billion (US$18.4) in 2006 to €20.8 billion in 2013 – up by 48%.

France ranked sixth internationally for number of scientific publications, and fourth for European patents, said the 283-page report, Le financement public de la recherche, un enjeu national. But the excellent basic research did not translate into good economic returns, with France languishing in 24th place in international rankings for innovation.

During 2007-12 France contributed €6 billion to the European budget, but recouped only €3.4 billion in successful bids for European Union projects.

“France is not in a position, in terms of growth and employment, to make the most of the research effort it finances, in spite of results regarding publications which testify that French research continues to be placed at an excellent level in international comparisons,” said the report.

The Cour des Comptes found that the discrepancies between funding and performance were principally due to the low level of R&D spending by companies, which accounted for only 1.41% of GDP in 2010, compared with an average of 1.58% for OECD countries.

Reasons were weak R&D participation in medium-sized companies, French specialisation in sectors of low R&D intensity and decline in the industrial sector, it said.

This was in spite of government encouragement to small and medium-sized companies to invest in R&D, through tax breaks from the credit impôt-recherche, or CIR, which accounted for €5.8 billion of the 2013 budget.

The report describes the many policy changes affecting research in recent years, including the effects of new methods for allocating funding and the academic and economic impact of extra finance for research since 2006.

Reforms include the radical 2007 university autonomy law, the LRU; the creation of agencies to evaluate and finance higher education and research institutions; reform of the CIR; and the launch of investissements d’avenir.

The report also makes not-always-favourable comparisons with other OECD countries on research performance.

Among its conclusions, the report found that the priority given to research had justified its exemption from the strictest public expenditure measures that had hit other sectors following the 2008 economic crisis. But, it added: “This exception to national budgetary policy must make some returns.”

It commented: “Maintaining scientific performances of excellence and improving economic results mean making the public funding system of research more efficient.” It was important, the report said, to make state financial provision more accessible and transparent, with clearly indicated priorities.

The report said it was essential to introduce a single management structure for each research unit. The current system of mixed research teams brought together researchers from higher education institutions, specialised research centres and the private sector. Each partner had its own managers, and this meant each one had only a partial, fragmented vision of the unit.

For the private sector, the report called for simplification of the funding system for technology transfer to companies.

Speaking last Wednesday at the opening of the Senate debate on the ESR bill, Higher Education and Research Minister Geneviève Fioraso acknowledged that the weak point “remains the transformation of the invention in the laboratory into creative innovation of knowledge and employment. This is why the law will from now on recognise this transfer as a public service responsibility.”

The Senate adopted the ESR on Friday.