France's Message to Science: Help Us Fix the Economy

Thinking strategically. French Higher Education and Research Minister Geneviève Fioraso.

Matthieu Riegler, CC-BY

France's government hopes that science can help shore up the country's lackluster economy. On Tuesday, the National Assembly approved a new law that aims to simplify the national landscape for research and higher education and make it more efficient, better able to address societal and economic challenges, and more competitive at the European level. The bill, which comes hand in hand with a new strategic plan for France's research priorities, also gives the government a greater role in coordinating research. The bill and the road map have been sharply criticized by various groups of researchers and university professors.

The French government is rolling out its new policies after an extensive, 4-month national consultation on research and higher education that ended in November. It presents the plans as a break from the government of Nicolas Sarkozy because it gives the state a more active role in defining priorities. French Higher Education and Research Minister Geneviève Fioraso described the road map, called France Europe 2020, as " the return of the strategist state" in an article in Le Monde.

The road map brings national priorities in line with the European Commission's nascent 7-year funding scheme, Horizon 2020, in part because France hopes that its researchers will score better in that program than they have in previous E.U. funding rounds. Health, food security, climate change, sustainable energy, urban systems, digital technologies, and space will be the national priorities; they will be further refined and periodically revised by a newly created strategic research council, chaired by Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, with input from the French national research agency (CNRS) and five large research-coordinating networks.

Trade unions say that the government can't make science responsible for rescuing the economy and worry that the new plan will erode basic research—despite Fioraso's insistence that it won't. "There is a big concern because [the government] wants research to solve an economic problem and an industry problem," says Patrick Monfort, a marine ecologist with CNRS in Montpellier and the general secretary of SNCS-FSU, the national trade union for scientific researchers. Monfort worries that with the government's focus on innovation, basic research will come under even more pressure, he says. "If France and Europe are doing the same thing, where is the space of freedom for fundamental research?"

The road map is partly designed to reinvigorate industry through the development of pathbreaking areas such as nanotechnologies and the promotion of industry-academia partnerships. Researchers and scientific institutions will be encouraged to transfer their knowledge to industry through training and performance evaluations, and startups will get more support.

The unions are also disappointed that the government hasn't touched some of Sarkozy's reforms, including a 2007 law that gave universities more autonomy and the €22 billion Investments for the Future program, which selectively endowed a small number of universities with new money. Meanwhile, there are no promises about more permanent research jobs, as the unions had hoped. Compared with the previous government, "only the tone has changed," complained Alain Trautmann, a former leader of the researchers' movement Sauvons la Recherche, in Le Monde.

But other researchers applaud the government's plan to bring industry and universities closer together; that is "indispensable" if the French economy doesn't want to become completely service-based, says Gilbert Béréziat, who was president of the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris between 2001 and 2006. Boosting the national capacity for producing goods of high added value is necessary to create industry jobs for students, he adds.

Béréziat would actually like to see the new government expand Sarkozy's reforms. "With Nicolas Sarkozy, there was a lot of blah-blah, but virtually nothing was done" in technology transfer, he says. For instance, a plan to create an innovation park in the heart of his former university's campus in Jussieu was never fully realized because the finance ministry didn't want to unblock the funding, and industry didn't push the issue either. To really bring academia and industry together, universities need even more autonomy, he says, combined with stronger incentives to collaborate. As Fioraso pointed out in her road map, the National Research Agency has already issued a funding call for universities and public institutes to set up joint laboratories with small and medium companies.

The bill, which passed the Assembly in an accelerated procedure at the government's request, is now headed to the Senate.