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French science crisis

More than 2,000 French science research laboratory directors and team leaders are on strike as Geotimes goes to press. On March 9, the leaders of the “Save Research” movement tendered their resignations of administrative and management duties in protest over what they call “draconian cuts” in government scientific spending and research jobs.

Under the French system, the government has two months to accept or deny the resignations and they have not done either, so the strike is not yet “real,” says Etienne Deloule, a geochemist at the National Scientific Center of Research (CNRS) in Nancy, France, who has signed the Save Research petition. Although the scientists continue most of their work at the labs, they have sent a very real message to the government that change is needed, Deloule says.

In 2002, French President Jacques Chirac promised that his administration was fully committed to research. Since then, however, the government has fallen behind on funding, drastically cut future budgets, converted 550 full-time research positions into short-term contracts and more than halved the number of positions offered to young researchers. These changes largely are due to shifting priorities in a rough economy; as defense and security take center stage, research, among other sectors, has become a lower priority.

Begun as a protest by life scientists, the Save Research movement seeks to reverse these changes to scientific study in France. The group’s petition has been signed by more than 72,000 French researchers — more than two-thirds of the entire French public research community — and involves all areas of research and academia without exception, says Vincent Courtillot, a geophysicist with the Institut de Physique du Globe (IPG) in Paris.

Already, Deloule says, the French government is making concessions. And it appears to be moving even more quickly toward change after regional elections on March 28, in which the incumbent French government suffered a major blow, losing 22 out of 24 regions to the socialist-led opposition, Courtillot says.

Prior to the election, the incumbent government had met several of the demands, including paying the labs, reinstating some full-time positions and involving the researchers in writing a white paper on how to reform research. And in early April, the new French minister of education and research announced the restoration of all 550 research positions and the creation of 1,000 assistant professorships in French universities within the next two years, says Marc Reinholdt, a geologist with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and director of the “collective of expatriate researchers” in the Save Research movement. But, he says, “even this good news does not proclaim the end of the strike.”

Courtillot adds that the new government also has yet to allocate the promised funds or jobs. He continues to worry “for the lack of jobs offered to my recent graduate students.” France, he says, is losing its young researchers to more competitive job markets in other countries.

This “brain drain” is a large concern among French scientists, says Courtillot, who is the former director in charge of academic and public research in France. The concern, as stated in the Save Research petition, is that “an entire generation of young researchers will be lost, as they either abandon research entirely for lack of jobs, or else emigrate to ‘greener’ pastures,” and thus France will fall behind other countries, both economically and scientifically.

According to figures reported in the London Times on March 10, researcher salary levels in the United States are triple those of France. The United States is thus drawing ever-increasing numbers of French doctorates — 3,000 immigrants in 2000 alone. In addition to the United States, young French researchers are also heading in droves to Canada and Japan, where opportunities for grants are considered better.

France has always been one of the leading countries in the level of scientific research of high international standards, says Barbara Romanowicz, a seismologist and chair of the earth and planetary science department at the University of California at Berkeley. “But right now there is a crisis,” she says, and if French research suffers tremendously, so will research worldwide.

Romanowicz, who began her career in France, says several of her former colleagues at CNRS have recently moved to the United States or are considering it, “attracted by the larger diversity of funding opportunities.” And at Berkeley, many French post-docs are waiting for an opportunity to return to France, but major reform needs to happen first, Romanowicz says.

Salary levels and grants are not the only issues. Most scientific research positions in France are public. When researchers are hired, they become civil servants and have positions for life, regardless of performance. And most positions are not renewed when someone retires. “Scientific research cannot be managed the same way as the post office,” Romanowicz says.

Scientists involved in the Save Research movement have agreed to meet with the government to work on a report on the necessary reforms to the French research structure and the need for better funding — “an important advance,” Reinholdt says. This committee, mediated by the president and vice president of the French National Academy of Sciences, will remit a first draft of reforms and suggestions in July.

Megan Sever

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