Cracks in the Monolith: CNRS Begins a Long-Awaited Reform

Reposted with permission from Science News, 27 May 2005

PARIS--The chiefs of France's CNRS--the largest basic research agency in Europe--have adopted a plan to shake the place to its foundations. The new scheme will halve the number of the agency's departments and merge many of its directly supported labs, reducing their number from 1200 to "perhaps 800," according to CNRS director Bernard Larrouturou, who presented the plan at a 23 May press conference.

Although many agreed that reform was overdue, it has taken more than a year of tough negotiations between the government and research unions to bring it off. Some observers were worried that the government might gut CNRS. The agency has grown massively since its creation in 1939; it now employs 11,600 researchers and 14,400 engineers, technicians, and administrative staff. It has never had a major organizational overhaul. The government wants to maintain the institution, not eviscerate it, Larrouturou said. He acknowledged, however, that CNRS's role will be changed. The plan "goes way beyond an [internal] reorganization [and] will bolster the CNRS as a research operator," he said.

Larrouturou peppered his presentation with references to the Max Planck Gesellschaft, saying he admires the German agency's focus on the core activity of research. He believes one of CNRS's roles is to be a "client" of the National Research Agency (ANR), the controversial French organization that was created this year to fund research projects and that some researchers fear will finance targeted projects at the expense of open-ended basic research. Larrouturou said it will be important to maintain a balance between ANR and other institutions.

The new plan calls for CNRS to reduce its thematic science departments from eight to four: chemistry, social sciences, life sciences, and a giant grouping of math, computer science, physics, and science of the planets and the universe. Two new crosscutting departments will be created for environment/sustainable development and engineering. CNRS will also create a general science directorate to assist the director and five interregional divisions (DIRs).

New agenda. More change ahead, says CNRS director Bernard Larrouturou.CREDIT: CHRISTOPHE LEBEDINSKY/CNRS PHOTOTHÈQUE

Larrouturou said that the shakeout, to be in place by next January, was needed to clarify CNRS's mission, to improve career prospects for young researchers, to foster university research, and to be part of the "training-research-innovation continuum." CNRS will do all this, he said, by encouraging closer links between public and private-sector research and the transfer of knowledge and technology. Larrouturou also said CNRS should play a key role in developing pan-European research, promoting research in French regions, and breaking down barriers between disciplines, a goal Larrouturou admits was pursued by at least seven of his predecessors. He does not rule out ending support for some disciplines if CNRS has a minor presence but says no decisions have yet been made: "Thinking about it is already a revolution."

The leading research union to which French/CNRS scientists belong, SNCS, is unhappy--both with specific changes and with Larrouturou's "polite arrogance," said Jacques Fossey, general secretary of SNCS and a member of the CNRS board. Fossey opposes the reform on several points, including its "lack of scientific coherence in the overdiversified" math-physical sciences department and the extra layer of complexity the DIRs will bring.

The changes at CNRS are part of a broad government agenda to improve French science, including a reform bill that has been delayed for months in a standoff between the government and researchers ( Science , 11 February, p.829). Recently, government officials made new promises in an attempt to break the impasse. Education and Research Minister François Fillon said 3000 scientific posts would be created in 2007--in addition to those pledged for 2006--in step with "implementation of the law," or cooperation from the labs. The final draft bill, Fillon has said, will be out by 15 June. That pledge did not stop several thousand scientists--who object to the government's reluctance to commit to specific jobs and cash figures--from marching in protest last week.

Barbara Casassus is a writer in Paris.

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