Research and innovation system could do better – OECD

France’s research and innovation programme to 2020 is taking the right general approach but is too complex, and universities should play a greater role alongside the powerful national research organisations. These are among the findings of a review of French innovation policies by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Following publication at the end of June of the 294-page OECD report, Examens de l’OCDE des politiques d’innovation: France, French ministers have set up a national commission to evaluate innovation policies.

The OECD reviews the French research and innovation system, or SFRI, which was structured during the 1950s to 1970s and dominated by the state’s central management role and the large national research organisations, analyses its current effectiveness and examines the 10-year Programme d’investissements d’avenir – Investments for the Future programme – or PIA, launched in 2010.

The report includes chapters on quality of education at all levels for innovation; public research and its scientific performance, cost, institutions, reforms and the role of universities; transfers between public research and private enterprises; policies to support research and innovation; innovation and entrepreneurship; and governance and evaluation of research and innovation policies at national, regional and European levels.

Distinctive features

The first feature of the SFRI, notes the report, is the crucial role of the state, which funded at least 37% of research and development expenditure in 2010, and nearer 50% including the research tax credit, or CIR. This compares with about 30% for countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom.

Another distinctive feature, said the OECD, was the small part played by universities in public research, which was mostly carried out by public research organisations such as the vast multidisciplinary National Centre for Scientific Research, or CNRS, and specialised organisations such as the atomic energy commission or CEA, the space agency CNES, INRIA for information technology and so on. These largely steered and funded research themselves, following broad objectives defined in consultation with the state.

A third feature, said the report, was “the proximity of the state and the large enterprises that carry out a major part of R&D, both strategic (the enterprises are involved in public initiatives) and financial (public procurement and state aid)”. The state’s highest contribution, “sizeable sums”, went to large enterprises and to very small start-ups. Medium-sized enterprises received virtually nothing.

Changing context

But the context in which the centrally administered system served France well had gradually changed, said the OECD. A flexible approach was now needed, with the ability to change choices and reallocate resources rapidly in response to scientific and technical opportunities or demand.

The world had become more diverse and interconnected, with rapid development in Korea, China and other countries speeding up global growth as it was slowing in developed countries, including France.

Major collective challenges the state was attempting to address through innovation had changed – from defence, during the cold war period, to new ones such as the environment and the ageing population.

The approach was more open, with need for a diverse range of stakeholders including small businesses and universities, which had previously been excluded.

A more diverse range of knowledge from every scientific and technical field was being drawn on, so research needed to be multidisciplinary with laboratories and enterprises in very different fields working together, and international cooperation the “natural operating procedure”, noted the report.

Among its qualities, the system needed to be flexible, competitive and cooperative, open to society and the market, entrepreneurial, internationalised and managed strategically but flexibly in its implementation – and “such that higher education can offer a solid training to large numbers of young increase the economy’s capacity for innovation and provide future researchers, engineers and entrepreneurs,” said the OECD.

France had adapted during the past 20 years with waves of reforms, most recently the 2008 law on Responsibility and Autonomy of Universities; the national research and innovation strategy in 2009; and the PIA, which allocated about €20 billion (US$27.3 billion), mostly on a competitive basis, to research and innovation, transfers and entrepreneurship, in 2010.

The old-model research organisations forged closer ties with universities through the creation of joint research units.

“The SFRI emerged from these successive reforms and policy reorientations considerably transformed. Yet the changes are only partial, and the current system can be described as mixed – a hybrid between the old administered model and the new open model.

“This mix is unsatisfactory in many respects because the friction and segmentation it creates make the system less effective overall,” said the OECD.

Among its observations, it found that while French public research was “certainly internationalised”, France was “not attractive enough to foreign R&D and researchers because of the difficult environment (taxation etc) and a research system that is neither very transparent nor open”.

It also revealed that higher education was finding it hard to produce the large quotas of students needed for an overall more innovative economy.

Concerning strategic management, because the public research organisations were in charge of planning public research there was difficulty in commercialising the research; and in spite of progress in project funding, about 90% of public research funding was recurrent, “restricting the state’s capacity to steer research in some organisations”.


Assessing the SFRI, the report identified two strategic challenges it faced – how to help make the French economy more competitive; and how to mobilise and channel the resources needed to respond to major social and environmental challenges.

On human resources, it noted that France had a highly skilled elite, but it was too small; and it trained fewer doctoral students than countries that were leaders in the field of research and innovation.

In scientific production it ranked behind Germany and the United Kingdom, but ahead of Italy and Spain. It had too few internationally respected researchers to raise its overall performance to the highest level.

Its strengths included top quality, multi-skilled innovative engineers for industry; a significant number of researchers internationally recognised for excellence, although overall quality of fundamental research was average; and top quality public research organisations in fields such as health and ICTs, noted the OECD.

Among weaknesses were poor educational performance in major sections of the population; a low rate of PhDs; a segmented public research system with some rigid components not really affected by evaluations and not very reactive to social and economic demand; and public research organisations that combined roles of planning, funding, executing and evaluating research while universities remained minimally involved.

Public research was mostly centred on the big research organisations, the largest of which was the CNRS. The few large research universities that had emerged were weaker than the public research organisations and comparable institutions abroad, said the OECD. Much of their research was carried out in joint research units, sometimes controlled by public research organisations, leading to complex working procedures.

The OECD suggested the new ‘site policy’ promoted by the ministry responsible for higher education and research could “simplify this cumbersome system of governance by placing the joint research units under the sole control of the universities”.

Project funding, traditionally limited in France, should be more widespread as it was a particularly good lever for promoting excellence, recommended the report; and there was a need for more thematic calls for tender so research could effectively reflect national priorities.

Evaluation of public research should continue regularly and be made more effective, and extended to teacher-researchers, it said.

On knowledge transfers between public research and businesses, in spite of efforts in the past 15 years “results since 2010 remain modest”, said the OECD.

Obstacles included public research not offering researchers enough incentives to transfer knowledge and choose research likely to have a social and economic ripple effect. More incentives should be offered to universities and public research organisations to encourage researchers to turn towards commercialisation, it recommended.

On research and development, or R&D, and business innovation, the OECD praised France’s CIR tax credit – “among the most generous in the world” – which “has a positive impact on corporate R&D” and helped firms that do research “to survive better than those that do not”.


The PIA programme, established in 2009, covers the period 2010-20 and aims to prepare France for such challenges as competitiveness, environment and health, and increase its growth potential by investing up to €35 billion in higher education and training, research, industry and small and medium enterprises, sustainable development and digitisation, explained the OECD report.

Its budget covered centres of excellence (€12 billion); health and biotechnologies (€2.45 billion); commercialisation of research (€3.5 billion); energy and circular economy (€3.15 billion); employment and equal opportunities (€1.1 billion); urban planning and housing (€1.5 billion); digital industry (€4.5 billion); and support to enterprises (€3.1 billion).

The OECD warned that although the PIA “has clear direction and all the necessary resources, its success is not guaranteed”.

It must overcome the complexity of its mechanism and its role in combination with other components of the SFRI; it was not always clear how the new programmes and entities it had created were coordinated, and some overlapped.

For the PIA to have full impact, reforms such as university autonomy at all levels (research and training policy, management of human and financial resources), and transfer of management of joint research units to universities, must continue.

If it achieved its objectives, said the OECD, by 2020 the main features of research and higher education could be that the balance would shift from recurrent to project funding, with projects selected openly and competitively; recurrent funding would be concentrated on a few institutions of excellence; and France would have improved its excellence ranking and become more attractive, welcoming many high-level foreign researchers.

It would have between five and 10 large, world-class research universities meeting highest international standards, while other universities would focus on quality education meeting economic and social needs, on research focused on several quality subject areas, and on developing close partnerships within the economic and social fabric.

The alternative – PIA failure and an end to reforms – “would mean that France maintains at best an intermediate position in research and innovation”, warned the OECD.

Ministers’ response

Following publication of the report, the Commission d’évaluation des politiques d’innovation was announced by Benoît Hamon, minister of education, higher education and research; Arnaud Montebourg, minister for the economy, economic regeneration and the digital economy; and Geneviève Fioraso, state secretary for higher education and research.

The four principal tasks of the commission are:
  • • To assess the different components and dimensions of evaluation policies with regard to their economic impact – growth, employment etc.
  • • To analyse them in their totality and examine their consistency and structure.
  • • To put forward proposals to reinforce the effectiveness of public policies.
  • • Through inquiries in France and internationally, to identify good practices in innovation policies in the regions and abroad.
The 20-member commission is chaired by economist Jean Pisani-Ferry, commissioner general at the Commissariat Général à la Stratégie et à la Prospective, the prime minister’s policy planning unit.

* For a summary of the OECD report in English click here.