Researchers Back a 70-Page Reform

Reposted with permission from Science News, 5 November 2004

Never before have French scientists been as single-minded as they were at a 2-day gathering last week in the Alpine town of Grenoble, when more than 900 of them voted for a raft of proposals on everything from cash to careers in the name overhauling fundamental research. With remarkable unanimity, they delivered a wish-list to François Fillon, Minister for Education and Research, who has promised to take a reform bill to parliament next spring. This effort builds on last year's showdown with the government in which more than 2,000 lab directors and research team leaders quit their administrative duties to protest funding and staffing cutbacks ( Science, 16 April p 368).

After the government backed down, hundreds of scientists across the country organized into working groups to prepare a string of reports, which were then honed into last week's proposals. They call for more coherent government oversight and stronger support of scientific careers. The proposals include creating a single research and higher education ministry, an independent higher science council to advise the government on strategy, a new body to evaluate all researchers, a long-term jobs plan for public agency researchers, and more crossover between the two groups. They ask that lecturers' teaching loads be halved, and that universities be reformed in depth. Doctoral students, who now have no health or social security coverage, should be given proper pay and conditions, and postdocs should be given associate researcher contracts of up to 3 years.

But how much of the wish-list will find its way into the parliamentary bill is another matter. "We don't know what [the government] will do with it, but we shall remain vigilant," says Alain Trautmann, co-director of the cell biology department at the Cochin Institute and spokesman for the protest movement. Although Fillon told the Grenoble conference he would also take account of some 20 other reform proposals, Trautmann says, "ours outstrip the others by a wide margin" in representing the community.

All the major political parties are paying attention: Their leaders were on hand last week, echoing a commitment to raise research spending to the European Union goal of 3% of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2010. And researchers were warmed by Fillon's clear admission that the government had made mistakes last year when his predecessor, Luc Ferry, and former research chief Claudie Haigneré were in office.

Although the show of hands in favor of the reform proposals was almost unanimous, the preceding 2 days of debate were far from docile. They were peppered with applause, boos, and a rowdy protest from an anti-science lobby that was silenced when the demonstrators were hustled from the conference room. The high spot, some delegates said, was the summing-up by Edouard Brézin, French Academy of Sciences vice president and co-president of the CIP, or Initiative and Proposal Council, which was formed earlier this year to produce a consensus for change among scientists. "It was a moment of great emotion," says Trautmann.

"We had to produce [a document] that contained neither over-specific recommendations nor a compromise that was so general we would have looked ridiculous," said Brézin, who will take over as Academy president from endocrinologist Etienne-Emile Baulieu next January. "We have succeeded in drawing up precise and realistic proposals and have not simply issued a union-type demand for more money, more posts."

The unions are happy with the result. The proposals "constitute a working framework for the scientific community," says the leading research union, SNCS. But university presidents are far from happy. They regret "the absence of important elements" they had suggested, such as merging agency and university researcher status to replace the separate agency and university academic researcher categories, and turning the leading agencies into mere suppliers of cash.

The CIP is putting finishing touches to the 70-page document before presenting it to Fillon and research minister François d'Aubert on 9 November. Most changes are modest, but the wording may prompt further discussion. For example, the report will explicitly reject a proposal by Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin to make the single new agency, which will be created next year, the lead provider of research funds. Instead, delegates agreed, government subsidies to agencies should continue to provide the bulk of the cash. Even all that would not be enough to put French research back on track, according to Baulieu. He told a parliamentary conference on Tuesday that the government must inject an extra 1 billion euros into research each year for 5 years, or a total of 15 billion euros, if it is to achieve the 3% of GDP target. The French reform game is clearly far from over.

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