French scientists want exam age limit

Recent abolishment hurts young applicants for entry-level government positions, they argue

By | September 20, 2005

Scientists in France are criticizing the government for abolishing the age limit in competitive exams for permanent, entry-level positions in research organizations, saying the move will dampen the career prospects of young scientists.

The vast majority of scientists working in France's government-run research organizations -- such as National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and France's Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) – have to pass an exam before accepting government research jobs. If hired, they can look forward to a relatively stable job, and incremental yearly increases in pay. Scientists who earn permanent, entry-level positions – known as CR2 – can later move between government research organizations and universities, a result of mutual agreements, and gradually move up the ranks.

Until last month, all scientists taking the exam for a CR2 position had to be less than 31 years old. The age limit was established to give young scientists a leg up on getting relatively stable government jobs, by protecting them from competition from older, more experienced scientists. Scientists above the age limit of 31, therefore, could not take a CR2 position, and instead had to fight for one of the few short-term government research contracts available each year, work for private industry, or leave France. Even with the age limit, the competition for CR2 positions has been fierce. Until now, there have been roughly eight applicants for each position, on average.

However, on August 2nd, the French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin abolished the age limit, arguing that opening the exams to older scientists enables research organizations to recruit the best candidates independent of age. Vanessa Bismuth, spokesperson for the Deputy Minister for Higher Education and Research, François Goulard, told The Scientist that expanding the candidate pool shouldn't make it harder for researchers to find a government position, since the government plans to create thousands of new jobs by increasing spending on science by 1 billion euros a year. "With the creation of 3,000 new jobs, and also people retiring, in 2006 and 2007, it will be possible for all those who pass the (government) exam to find a position in a laboratory," she said. "There will be work for the best because it will be an exam of competition and less so of age."

Many scientists, however, disagree. Jacque Fossey, secretary general of the National Union of Scientific Researchers, argued that eliminating the age ban means that young scientists – even qualified ones – will have a harder time entering the government research work force. "We fought for this age limit to be introduced to give young scientists a chance," Fossey told The Scientist. "If a young scientist with two or three years of laboratory experience applies together with an older scientist who has had maybe five or six years or more years of experience, then it is clear the older scientist has a better chance.

"The result of this change will be that the average age of scientists getting their first permanent (position) will increase," he said, since older scientists, who have more experience, will likely win more positions. The change may not work totally in older scientists' favor, however, Fossey added. "More experienced scientists will find themselves working for the salary of a young scientist."

Gerard Chaouat, a director of research at INSERM's unit in Clamart, countered that abolishing the age limit will enable more people to enter science, a "good side" to the recent decision. "Scientists who have not followed a typical career route or who went abroad to do their postdoctoral research could benefit," he told The Scientist.

CNRS, France's biggest research organization, has immediately opened its exams to all age groups. Martine Hasler, press officer of CNRS, told The Scientist that 4765 candidates had signed up for the final phase of exams for the 411 positions available this year. INSERM did not reply by the deadline given.

The research union SLR Jeunes Chercheurs, or Union of Young Researchers, are now asking the government to introduce special measures to help young scientists, to compensate for losing the CR2 age limit.

Correction (posted September 23, 2005): When originally posted, the article implied that the age limit in question applied to all government research positions, when if fact it was only for entry-level positions, known as CR2. The Scientist regrets the error.

Editor's note: Please see a letter on this story.

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