French Scientists Give Government an Earful in 4-Month Listening Tour

New proposals. Nobel laureate Françoise Barré-Sinoussi chaired the national consultation.

Assises Nationales

Make our life simpler. Stop the excessive reviews. Dial back the competition for money. Those were some of the key messages that the French higher education and research community sent during a massive, 4-month consultation set up by the government. The listening tour, led by an independent panel chaired by Nobel laureate and virologist Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, wrapped up with an animated 2-day meeting at the Collège de France in Paris this week, attended by some 700 people.

The goal of the Assises Nationales, launched by Higher Education and Research Minister Geneviève Fioraso: Prepare the ground for a new law, expected by mid-2013, that may put an end to some of the reforms launched by the government of Nicolas Sarkozy. The consultation also aimed to build trust between the socialist government of French President François Hollande and the scientific community.

In the best French tradition, the exercise was exhaustive: The panel talked to representatives of more than 100 research organizations and associations and received more than 12,000 individual and collective open letters. Then it put together 121 proposals for the debate in Paris, which was opened on Monday by Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and shown online. Vincent Berger, a physicist and president of the Université Paris Diderot, Paris 7, is in charge of the final recommendations; on Tuesday, he outlined a road map for change.

One key message that emerged from the exercise: The scientific community is fed up with the complexity of the national education and research system. The number of research structures, agencies, and partnerships has reached an all-time high; the complexity, lack of coherence, and redundancies that result are a burden on French researchers and make the system opaque to the private sector and foreigners.

Another criticism concerns the elaborate systems to evaluate researchers and labs. In 2007, the government created the Evaluation Agency for Research and Higher Education (AERES) to evaluate all laboratories, universities, and research organizations. But it didn't dissolve already existing bodies such as those evaluating individual researchers. The proliferation of reviews "has put on researchers a bureaucratic load that is unbearable," physicist and Nobel laureate Serge Haroche of the Collège de France said in a guest talk on Monday. How to solve that became the topic of fierce and sometimes acrimonious debates between those who wanted to reform AERES and others who wanted to just close it.

Many also said that they want to stay true to French traditions of equality and collaboration. In recent years, policies to pursue excellence have resulted in what many condemn as a systematic, exaggerated, and damaging competition between researchers, institutions, and regions in France. The so-called Excellence Initiatives (IdEx), big clusters of top universities and research organizations, are especially controversial because winners are showered with money while entire regions lose out. Berger called for IdEx to become programs that stimulate local cooperation between institutions, rather than autonomous entities that compete even with their own founding institutions.

Part of the increased competition stems from the creation, in 2005, of the National Research Agency (ANR), which funds short-term research projects in an open competition. ANR's budget has steadily increased, to the detriment of the lump sums given to research institutions and laboratories. One consequence, many said, is that it has become more difficult to do basic research. Most ANR grants are small, and only one in five applications is rewarded, leading many to complain about the excessive time researchers have to spend on writing grants. Although ANR has become an accepted part of the landscape, some want to reform the way it works. For instance, ANR should invite more bottom-up projects and extend grants to 5 years, said materials scientist and honorary university professor Roger Fougères, who chaired some of the debates.

The report will also ask to seek a new balance between ANR money and direct funding. The government has already shifted €80 million from the ANR to institutions and laboratories in its €26 billion science budget for 2013.

Not everyone was satisfied with the consultation. Students and trade unions say their voices weren't heard enough. Although in the end they made quite a stir, postdocs and other staff members on short-term contracts also had a hard time entering the debate. The proposal they issued to create a larger number of new civil servant positions so that the research system could absorb them is controversial.

The running committee will deliver its recommendations to Hollande; a new law for higher education and research is expected in the first half of 2013.

Meanwhile, many say that it's not just a matter of organization, but also of money. Earlier this month, 14 university presidents painted a dire picture of French university finances in an open letter to Fioraso. The university autonomy law adopted in 2007 has given them more tasks and responsibilities without adequate funding, they argue. Many in the French research community have high hopes that this time, things will be different.