New heads at French research body

Appointments at the CNRS spark speculation about future of recent, highly debated reforms

By | February 1, 2006

The Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) has appointed a new president and director, inspiring discussions among researchers about how the new management will handle the publicly funded research organization's troubled reforms, which forced out the previous director. The new president, Catherine Bréchignac, and director, Arnold Migus, are both physicists. The government has also given Bréchignac full responsibility over policy decisions, in response to frequent disagreements within the previous leadership. "The director and the president of the CNRS could not see eye to eye on the planning, nominations and appointees; the situation became untenable," Edouard Brézin, president of the Academy of Sciences and former president of the CNRS Administrative Council, told The Scientist. The fact that Bréchignac is now visibly in charge of policy is a great improvement on the absence of a clear hierarchy at the top, he noted. The previous director of the CNRS, Bernard Larrouturou, established a series of reforms that, among other measures, regrouped the eight departments of the CNRS into four larger ones -- Chemistry, Man and Society, Life sciences, and a large division grouping together information technology, physics, and astronomy. The reforms also added two new "transversal" departments -- Engineering, and Environment and Sustainable Development -- and distribute the administration of the CNRS over five regional directorates. The organization began implementing the reforms in 2005, but met with opposition from staff, including the previous CNRS president Bernard Meunier, who resigned early in January. The government reacted by dismissing Larrouturou, without giving a formal reason -- although some viewed the dismissal as a consequence of Larrouturou's efforts to minimize government interference in the running of the CNRS. Among the reforms, the creation of five regional directorates met with most resistance, as many argued the move would simply add to the organization's bureaucracy, already a major element of French politics. "France loves to pile up all kinds of administrative layers in all kinds of directions," Pierre Joliot, a biophysicist at the Collège de France told The Scientist. Martine Hasler, spokesperson for the CNRS, said that both Migus and Brechignac were currently not speaking to the press. However, Hasler provided The Scientist with a letter addressed to the personnel of the institution, in which Migus and Brechignac said that they planned to continue implementing the reforms without major changes. And in an editorial published in the February issue of Le Journal du CNRS, Bréchignac and Migus emphasize the importance of three elements of the reforms: encouraging interdisciplinary work, shifting control over research to regions rather than keeping it centralized, and increasing the responsibility of laboratory directors. The new leaders also stress their intent to bring the organization back to its position as a major player in the formulation of France's research strategy. Bréchignac is a molecular physicist who headed the Aimé Cotton Laboratory of the CNRS in Orsay. Arnold Migus, a physicist, headed the Institute of Optics in Orsay. Bréchignac held the post of director general of the CNRS from 1997 to 2000, so consequently is not new to the problems plaguing the institution. During the late 1990s she crossed swords with Claude Allègre, then France's research minister, about measures to "debureaucratize" the institution. The researchers The Scientist spoke to generally support the nomination and are confident that Bréchignac will bring the reforms to a good end. "She is one of the few people who are capable to redirect the ship," Jules Hoffmann, a biologist at the University of Strasbourg and member of the CNRS Administrative Council, told The Scientist. Along with debates over reforms, Bréchignac will have to deal with possible funding conflicts with France's newly created National Research Agency (ANR), which will allocate funding on a competitive basis. Although France's scientific community has been generally positive about the ANR, some argue that the new organization is siphoning off funding from the CNRS, which depends on regular funding. Links within this article Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique Reforms at the CNRS Nomination of Catherine Bréchignac Nomination of Arnold Migus Edouard Brézin Bernard Larrouturou Bernard Meunier Pierre Joliot C. Bréchignac and A. Migus, "CNRS: Remplacer les priorites scientifiques au premier plan," Le Journal du CNRS. Curriculum Vitae of Catherine Bréchignac Jules Hoffmann C. Wallace, French gov't approves research bill, The Scientist, December 5, 2005.

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