French Research Chief Given the Boot

PARIS--Last week, just as much of the country was heading off for summer vacation, the French government fired Geneviève Berger, director of the country's main basic research agency, CNRS.

A statement from the research ministry announcing Berger's ouster suggested that she was not the right person to implement major reforms for French science that the ministry is expected to propose in the coming months. Research minister Claudie Haigneré, says a spokesperson, "wanted a new man for a new, flexible policy": mathematician Bernard Larrouturou, head of INRIA, the information technology research agency. But some observers suggest darker reasons for Berger's precipitous downfall and what it could mean for CNRS. Jacques Fossey, a CNRS chemist and head of the research union SNCS, says the ouster may amount to "a political settling of accounts," because Berger's voice was part of a high-profile chorus condemning cuts in French research. Like many other top science officials, Berger had vigorously and publicly condemned a crippling 33% cut in CNRS's $3 billion budget for 2003.

Berger, appointed by the previous Socialist government, was anything but a rebel for much of her 3 years in office. She was unpopular with scientists, notes Fossey, earning a reputation as a "yes-woman" only too happy to follow the research ministry's desires to focus on areas such as nanotechnology and life sciences at the expense of physics, chemistry, and mathematics.

Ironically, many of Berger's colleagues were just beginning to warm to her when the ax fell. She made a "real effort to develop interdisciplinary research and collaboration with other agencies, which has never been done before," says the head of another research agency who says he was surprised by Berger's dismissal. "Something must have happened," he says.

Berger's successor is a rising star in French research management. In the statement announcing the switch, Haigneré lauded Larrouturou, 44, for his success in coaxing industry to pick up on research results and for spinning off a pair of companies, Simulog and INRIA-Transfert.