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French Scientists Accuse National Institute of Discrimination

For years, a committee at CNRS has bucked the recommendations of its researchers to hire two social scientists, and colleagues conclude that prejudice is at play.

Jul 22, 2019
Christina Reed

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For three years now, French social scientists tasked with making hiring recommendations within their field at the French National Center for Scientific Research have qualified Akim Oualhaci as eligible and highly competitive for one of a handful of available research positions there. But on June 6, Oualhaci, a postdoc in sociology for the past eight years, learned that the final selection committee had declined his job application for a third time. 

The refusal to accept him has evoked suspicion about discrimination during the hiring process. Two hundred scientists, foreign and French, signed an open letter published in the newspaper Le Monde last month that raised the issue. “There is a civil crisis in the social sciences,” says electrochemist François Ozanam, a researcher at CNRS since 1988.

The reasons for the admission jury’s decision are confidential, however. “We don’t know what the problem is,” says Philippe Hapiot, director of research at the Institute of Chemical Sciences at Rennes and CNRS president of the physical chemistry division. “It’s a big secret.” CNRS declined to comment on Oualhaci’s situation.  

In each of the more than three dozen scientific fields represented at CNRS, a preliminary selection committee made up of researchers in that field vet all the candidates for the available positions and interview the top 50 they select. They then write a report ranking their choices and provide their supporting arguments for their decision. But the final admissions juries—there is one for each of the 10 overarching CNRS institutes—are under no obligation to share why they ultimately choose one candidate over the other from the recommendations proposed.  

In France, research on social inequality issues is often seen as being politically charged.

Oualhaci’s research projects tackle social inequalities and identify markers of intelligence using sports smarts and street smarts rather than just academic success. He is looking for what he calls “têtes du quartier,” or heads of the hood. These are minority youth who have grown up in poor neighborhoods and are active leaders within their community. “If you want to be a researcher in France, you can apply as a professor at a university or apply to CNRS where you don’t have to teach, and where you have more autonomy, or freedom to conduct your research project,” Oualhaci says. The ability to continue with his research as he wants is why he continues to apply to CNRS. But getting a project accepted is key. 

“Maybe it’s too political,” he offers as a possible reason for the CNRS hiring committee’s rejection of his application. In France, research on social inequality issues is often seen as being politically charged. Still, he adds, “the sociologists [on the preliminary committee] looked at the project and their judgement is more scientific and valuable and it’s hard to say they’ve made a mistake three years in a row.”  

Oualhaci’s case has drawn a spotlight on CNRS’s recruitment process in general. It’s not the first time the final selection committee has disregarded the recommendation of the preliminary panel. Of the 250 researcher positions available across the range of all fields this year, a dozen top tier candidates chosen by their peers during the preliminary selection process were not accepted. “Now, the direction is for the second jury to make more directly its own recruitment decisions despite the rankings made by specialists on the first jury,” says sociologist Isabelle Clair, a researcher at CNRS who is collaborating with Oualhaci on a study of Parisian youth, looking at social and cultural practices.

In 2017, the sociology committee tied Oualhaci as its first choice along with Matthieu Grossetête, who studies the sociology of risks, for three sociology positions available. The admissions jury selected neither of them. Then in 2018, the preliminary committee ranked Grossetête and Oualhaci 8th and 9th, respectively, for eight available positions; the admissions jury downgraded them to 9th and 10th. At that point, Grossetête says, jury members reached out to the CEO of CNRS, mathematician Antoine Petit, who offered him a job: a one-year contract starting in September 2018. He applied again this year for a permanent position. On March 31, the CNRS terminated Grossetête’s contract without notice after he applied for the CNRS 2019 competition; he was not evaluated. Oualhaci was ranked fourth for five positions, but the admission jury did not choose him, and furthermore removed his name from the eligible candidates list provided to the CEO. 

Of the 250 researcher positions available across the range of all fields this year, a dozen top tier candidates chosen by their peers during the preliminary selection process were not accepted. 

“The admission jury has its own criteria that make it possible to decide whether to keep, or not, the eligible [candidates] on the admission list,” Alain Schuhl, deputy director general for science and the second in charge at CNRS, tells FranceTVinfo (translated from French). Furthermore, their internal debates over candidates “are not made public,” he told the French magazine Libération (translated from French). 

Based on the stories of Oualhaci, Grossetête, and others, some researchers suspect that some sort of discrimination is involved. Not getting some of the top tier candidates selected “happens from time to time, but not three times in a row,” says Ozanam. “The second year, it’s not unusual. The third year, OK, something is wrong.”

For his part, Grossetête says it’s not racial. “I’m French. I’m white.” But he suspects both age and area of research could be factors. “We are old,” Grossetête says of himself, 41, and Oualhaci, 44, and “we work on social inequalities, and in France that line of work is politically unacceptable. The field of sociology is totally different here than it is in the United States and the United Kingdom.”

In an interview with France Culture, Petit rebutted the discrimination claims. “I have nothing to say that these accusations are anything but gratuitous, and other than people who are not happy with the decision made by the admissions jury. And who, for lack of arguments, will accuse the CNRS of a little everything and anything. I would find it paradoxical to have to justify the attitude of the CNRS on the basis of accusations that are completely unfounded, and on which I challenge anyone to give serious and measurable arguments.” (Quote translated from French.)

Grossetête says he has been unemployed since April 1. After completing his postdoc at Paris’s School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in June, Oualhaci too is unemployed. “[Oualhaci] could apply for the fourth time in 2020,” notes sociologist Karim Hammou, a researcher at CNRS who has worked with Oualhaci. “But the signal sent by the admission committee is clear: ‘We don’t want you in the CNRS whatsoever.’” 

Christina Reed is a freelance science journalist based in Paris. Follow her @seagirlreed on Twitter.

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