France hatches 67 California Wannabes

* Reposted with permission from Science News, 22 July 2005.

PARIS--France may soon have its own Silicon Valley--or, more likely, 67 miniversions of that icon of American innovation. Last week, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin announced a list of 67 regional partnerships across the country that his government hopes to nurture into cutting-edge science and technology engines designed to create new jobs and kick-start the economy. But the plan has already run into criticism: Some researchers say industrial strategy shouldn't drive research policy, while others argue that the funds available--some €1.5 billion for the next 3 years--are spread so thin they can't possibly have much impact.

The decision to create "Competitiveness Clusters," as the new regional hubs are called, was taken last year by the previous government, led by Jean-Pierre Raffarin. But it has been embraced by Villepin, who made fighting France's double-digit unemployment his number one priority when he took over last month. Flanked by four cabinet ministers and citing Silicon Valley as a "historic example," Villepin called the plan a "choice for ambition" when he presented it last week.

Spreading the wealth. Almost every region in France will be home to several of 67 new Competitiveness Clusters. (The number on this map is greater than 67 because interregional clusters are shown more than once.)

The clusters--selected from 105 candidates by an interdepartmental panel--consist of a regional collaboration among research institutes, schools, universities, and businesses. Their focus ranges from nanotechnology and secure communications to sports equipment and--in "Cosmetic Valley," a plan backed by companies such as Dior and Yves Saint Laurent--"the science of beauty and well-being." The centers will benefit from tax breaks as well as specific support from funding agencies, including the new National Research Agency. They will also enjoy priority status when the government allocates the 3000 new research jobs it has promised for next year ( Science, 27 May, p. 1243).

But some fear that Villepin's version of Silicon Valley may be unattainable. The failure thus far to translate French research into new, profitable technologies stems from a variety of factors, says Alain Trautmann, the spokesperson of Sauvons la Recherche (Let's Save Research), a protest movement--including a less entrepreneurial spirit, timid venture capitalists, and discouraging bankruptcy laws. He doesn't think they can be fixed by scattering extra funds here and there. What's more, Trautmann says, U.S. high-tech hubs arise in areas with excellent basic research, which doesn't "take its orders from industry."

Others have criticized the large number of centers, suggesting that the plan is inspired more by behind-the-scenes lobbying and U.S.-style pork-barrel politics than by a desire to promote excellence. The resulting budget per center (some €7.5 million per year, often shared by dozens of partners) is bound to be ineffective, the opposition Socialist Party said in a statement last week.

But Bruno Goud, a group leader at the Curie Institute --a partner in a health cluster in the Paris region that's on the list--says something is better than nothing. Although it may be "typically French" for the government, rather than market forces, to designate the hot spots of the future, he adds, that doesn't mean it won't work.

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