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French basic science left behind

Launch of 'competitiveness clusters' worries scientists who think academic research is at risk

By | July 25, 2005

The French government's recent announcement that it would commit €1.5 billion ($1.8 billion US) over the next three years to collaborations working largely on applied research has disappointed some scientists who see it as a sign that politicians are favoring industrial innovation at the expense of basic research.

On July 12, the French Interministerial Committee for Territorial Planning and Development announced it would be dedicating the funds to 67 research collaborations between national laboratories and private industry. The government hopes these "competitiveness clusters" will encourage top-notch researchers back to France and boost the country's international standing.

"While it is legitimate that the government is concerned about improving its industrial policy, it is illegitimate and irresponsible to confuse industrial policy and research," said Alain Trautmann, spokesperson for Sauvons la recherche (Let's Save Research), the movement leading the national protest against the parlous state of French science.

"I think researchers are nauseated," he told The Scientist. "The politicians are very fast at raising funds for one side of the coin, but for academic/public research, all it's been doing is dragging its feet and postponing its decisions."

Trautmann's group and others have been fighting the government for months over its plan to reform the country's research system. In May, thousands of scientists protested against the government's failure to present a budget plan laying out the distribution of funds between public institutions, universities, and the newly established National Research Agency. The agency will be evaluating and financing both fundamental and applied research projects, but concerns have been raised that it would eclipse the established institutions and favor applied research.

"The government keeps denying it, but the facts speak for themselves—politicians systematically associate research and innovation, as if only innovation could justify research," Trautmann said. Their "decisions concerning competitiveness clusters are just one additional illustration of this tendency."

Among the cluster projects, presented by Prime Minister de Villepin, those that will most benefit from the funding focus on applied research in fields such as nanotechnology, cancer research, and neurobiology.

Pierre Tambourin, head of the Meditech Health cluster, which will unite public institutions with pharmaceutical giants such as Sanofi-Aventis to collaborate on neurological disease and cancer research, said the move was a sign that the government values its researchers.

"The government is finally acting on the emergency of the situation," Tambourin told The Scientist. "For example, in the past 20 years, about half the number of doctoral students in life sciences couldn't find the position they were logically aiming for. Some gave up, others fled to work abroad."

In his presentation, de Villepin announced that some of the clusters will have priority access to a portion of the 3000 new permanent research positions the government promised to create for 2006.

France has also promised to increase spending on all types of public research by 1 billion every year, with the aim of reaching a European Union target to have 3% of GDP spent on research and development. "But when you take out what the government will spend on the National Research Agency, on tax credits, and what it intends to spend on new measures, there is not much left for subsidies to fundamental research labs," Edouard Brezin, vice president of the French Academy of Sciences, told The Scientist. After a meeting with the Prime Minister's advisors following the announcement, Brezin said he still had doubts about what the science budget will include.

A new draft of the budget should be presented before the fall, an advisor to the government's research council told The Scientist. "This new project will confirm to scientists that a large part of the promised jobs and of the funding [will go] to fundamental research. And in this case, our only criteria will be the scientific quality of the projects," he said.

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