Woman Physicist Named to Top French Science Post

PARISFrance's new Socialist government made history today by naming physicist Catherine Bréchignac as the first woman director-general of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). The CNRS is France's largest public research agency and the backbone of the nation's public research effort.

Bréchignac, who has an international scientific reputation in the field of atomic clusters, is no stranger to the CNRS administration. In 1995, after 6 years as director of the Aimé Cotton physics laboratory at the University of Paris's Orsay campus, she was named scientific director of the CNRS's physics and mathematics department. Bréchignac will replace Guy Aubert, whose term as CNRS director-general expires on 18 July. Aubert was appointed by the previous conservative government and was closely associated with its budget-pruning policies.

Geochemist Claude Allègre, minister of education and research, is hoping that Bréchignac's appointment will help kick off his promised campaign to re-energize French science. Geophysicist Vincent Courtillot, Allègre's chief adviser, says she will soon be receiving a detailed "assignment letter" from Allègre, spelling out an ambitious program of changes at the agency. Among them will be a concerted effort to "debureaucratize" the CNRS, whose budget is largely taken up by salaries and administrative costs. Courtillot says that Allègre will also expect Bréchignac to boost recruitment of young scientists into the agency, as well as to foster scientific exchanges between the CNRS, the universities, and industry.

Bréchignac's appointment, which was approved today by the Council of Ministers, was warmly welcomed by colleagues. "Her scientific qualifications are incontestable," says Michel Broyer, director of the CNRS's Ionic and Molecular Spectrometry unit at the University of Lyons. Mathematician Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, director of the Institut des Hautes ƒtudes Scientifiques near Paris, adds that Bréchignac "is an extremely direct woman, who presents her point of view but is capable of listening to others and changing her mind if she is convinced."