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"French research split" par Michael Gross

"Current Biology"

samedi 28 juin 2008, par Laurence

Pour le texte sur le site de "Current Biology".

Life scientists are rapidly waking up to the threat to their future in the face of France’s announcement of a break-up of the CNRS — Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, France’s major research organisation — amid a raft of other concerns.

The winter of 2003–04 was one of discontent for French scientists, who demonstrated in masses against government policies that they felt were forcing them into utilitarian ways of doing research. The grassroots movement produced the organisation Sauvons la Recherche (SLR), which, after much demonstrating and protesting, succeeded in establishing a dialogue with the then government. A national assembly of representatives of the scientists was set up towards the end of 2004 and helped to shape the reforms to the system that both sides agreed were necessary (Curr. Biol. 14, R1031).

With Nicolas Sarkozy, France has a new, rather fearless and brash president, and the first government under his tenure seems to be on collision course with the country’s scientific community once more. The worst conflict since 2004 ignited over the reform of the CNRS, which runs more than 1,200 research laboratories around the country, most of them associated with universities. It employs 32,000 staff with a current budget of nearly 3.3 billion euros.

The CNRS administration headed by physicist Catherine Bréchignac had been preparing a fundamental reform of the organisation, aiming to make it more transparent, efficient and internationally competitive. The administrative council of the organisation was due to meet on May 22 to analyse and discuss the plan, and then again on June 19 to make a final decision on it.

On May 20, however, research minister Valérie Pécresse jumped the gun in a rather spectacular fashion. She announced in the newspaper Le Monde the results of the discussion that hadn’t even taken place yet. Pécresse revealed the contents of a directive she sent to Bréchignac, which leaves the organisation no leeway at all and starts every paragraph with a command-style “You will do …”.

According to Pécresse, the CNRS will be divided into six national centres serving the research disciplines mathematics, physics, chemistry, engineering, humanities, and ecology/biodiversity and will follow a model that has already been applied to the medical research council, INSERM. These centres will be comparable to the UK research councils. CNRS will lose the power to appoint institute directors to the ministry. Most significantly, CNRS loses most of the life sciences portfolio, which will be moved to INSERM. And it is this move, in particular, that has alarmed life scientists outside the medical area. A petition is now circulating amongst researchers calling for a non-medical biology unit in the divided CNRS.

Researchers at the CNRS and at the SLR movement are generally agreed that some reform of the organisation is necessary, but they are outraged by the way in which the ministry has bypassed the decision-making of the administrative council, as if to suggest the scientists’ opinion was irrelevant. The delegates of the CNRS staff in the administrative council resigned in protest against the disrespect shown by the ministry. Bréchignac, who holds her job as an appointee of the government, remained calm and gave a comment which an observer paraphrased as “let the minister talk, I’ll just get on with the work”.

While CNRS researchers welcome the prospect of more transparency and reductions in red tape, they are also worried that the transfer of life sciences to INSERM heralds a new era in which biological research is only funded if it has immediate medical applications. One CNRS scientist conducting several interdisciplinary research projects at the interface between biology, biochemistry and physics raised concerns that the slicing up of the organisation into disciplines might discourage such interdisciplinary work and make it harder to obtain funding for it.

Making waves :
Many French researchers are angry about the manner in which the government has announced reforms to the CNRS and life scientists are particularly worried.

SLR cofounder and spokesman Alain Trautmann, head of the department of cellular biology at the Institut Cochin at Paris, expressed doubts that the plans will really amount to the promised improvements in transparency and efficiency. Instead, he fears the reforms will boost government control over research agendas. In particular, he predicts that the government aims to “restrict research activities to those which have foreseeable applications”. Trautmann commented : “for the people currently in power, the only valuable kind of biology is the one which leads to progress in the health sector. It is no coincidence that the government speaks only of biomedical research, never of biology. This vision is both short-sighted and stupid.”

Moreover, Trautmann expressed fears that the division of CNRS and INSERM into smaller research councils might just be the prelude for privatisation of some of these erstwhile national institutes. He also criticised that the reduction of CNRS to a funding agency would create a pointless parallelism between the CNRS and the recently founded grant agency ARN.

Many researchers appear to share his concerns, because on May 27 the largest demonstrations of academics since the 2004 revolt were held in Paris and university cities including Marseille, Montpellier, Bordeaux, and Toulouse. More than 5,000 demonstrated in the capital alone, in spite of persistent rain. The title ‘Academic Pride’ illustrates how victimised and marginalised many scientists in France feel. However, the memory of the 2004 revolt is still vibrant, and with it the hope that academics can force politicians to respect their opinions.