French gov't approves research bill

Scientists continue to protest the reform, arguing it puts basic research in jeopardy

By | December 5, 2005

Last week the French Council of Ministers approved the country's long-awaited draft reform on research, endorsing the government's strategy to mend an understaffed and under-funded system. Scientists, however, continued to speak out against the reform, saying that the new bill does not do enough, and may even threaten basic research.

"All the government has demonstrated in the past months and again in this draft is its support for applied research, this betrays that its only priority is innovation," Alain Trautmann, spokesperson for the Association Sauvons la Recherche (Let's save research), told The Scientist.

The government hopes the "Pact for Research" will boost France to the leading ranks of the international scientific competition. To do so, it plans to spend an extra 6 billion Euros (7.1 billion dollars) over three years on research, increase tax exoneration for private research, and encourage public-private measures intended to make the profession more attractive to prospective researchers.

The government plans to ensure its priorities are carried out by establishing new evaluation and research entities. The National Research Agency (NRA), created last February, will receive applications for research funding both from the public and the private sector, and decide which projects best meet the government's research goals. Traditionally, the funding process for the public and private sectors was kept separate.

For the past two years, the French research community has loudly opposed the government's proposals, taking to the streets at several occasions. They argue that the government's research objectives are still largely undefined, and could significantly favor applied research over basic studies. Consequently, the new reform could threaten fundamental research by dedicating more funds to applied work that meets the government's short-term economic goals, according to Trautmann.

Other vivid accusations came from unions such as SGEN-CFDT, which demonized the bill as "a utilitarian and mercantile vision of science," and from the country's National Council on Higher Education and Research, which voted to reject the project earlier this month.

Critics also argued that the reform does not dedicate enough funds to research, and lacks details concerning the distribution of the additional money promised each year for research. "Once you take away what will be spent on tax incentives for private companies, for defense, for the NRA, and if you take into account our 2 percent inflation, it's unclear how much will be left for universities and research labs that do not 'fit' the government's main objectives," Edouard Brezin, president of the Academy of Sciences, told The Scientist.

France's Economic and Social Council (ESC), which last week released a report endorsing the reform as a whole, still calls it a short-term solution to a long-term problem, and requests that the plan extend to at least 2010. "The legislation lays out important improvements, but this can only represent a first step," François Ailleret, member of the ESC, told The Scientist. "It is now imperative that the State sets up a concrete program covering the next five years." The ESC argues that the reform also does not do enough to attract young researchers.

According to François Goulard, Minister of Higher Education and Research, the constitution does not enable the government to lay out multi-annual plans. "Besides, we cannot go beyond 2007, which will be the year of the presidential elections," Goulard told The Scientist.

Critics are also questioning the State's expectations of the private sector. The Government says it aims to commit 24 billion (28.3 billion dollars) Euros in 2010 to reach the European Commission's target for research spending, or 3 percent of the country's GDP, for that year. (France currently spends about 2.2 percent of its GDP on research, of which approximately 1 percent comes from the state.) According to Brezin, in order to commit 24 billion Euros to research, the government must expect the private sector to increase its own efforts by over 60 percent– an unrealistic prediction, critics say.

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