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Vin, Pain, et Science

France is known to Americans for many things--food, wine, mountains, charming villages, a way of serving potatoes that actually started in Belgium, the tendency of its workers to go on strike--but France isn't known, in the United States anyway, as a scientific powerhouse. Still, when Brad Singer, an associate professor of geology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, decided to visit France, it wasn't for the wine. Singer, who once ran a laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, chose to return to Europe for the scientific opportunities it offered. "France has three of the finest paleomagnetism labs in the world," he says, so he decided to make a temporary scientific home for himself in one of them, the CNRS laboratory of Hervé Guillou in Gif-sur-Yvette.

American scientists working in France have experiences that are almost always positive. Almost all of those we talked to come to appreciate some aspect of France's rich culture, both inside and outside the lab. The only negative comments--usually expressed with an air of amused astonishment--were about France's overwhelming bureaucracy. Most American scientists, it seems, go to France for the scientific opportunities it offers, but they come away with vivid memories of a rich cultural experience that extends well beyond the laboratory.

French Culture, Part I: The Laboratory

Everyone we spoke to agreed that there are major differences between France and the United States when it comes to laboratory culture. Some of these differences, most agreed, arise from the way the labs are organized. "When you talked about 'the lab' where I worked, you were actually referring to about 80 staff in several diverse groups headed by a director," writes Andrea Ambrosini, who did a postdoc at Laboratoire CRISMAT in Caen, Normandy. "The hierarchy is very different than in U.S. academic labs because not each professor/researcher ran his/her own group. You would have a team leader that loosely coordinated each group's activities, and each professor/researcher would have their own project(s), but things weren't as delineated as they are in the U.S."

James Kennedy, a wine chemist at Oregon State University in Corvallis, "got the sense that the scientific community that I was in contact with had a tremendous respect for science and its institutions. There is quite a bit of ritual associated with university life. Yes, the scientific culture in France is definitely more formal than it is in the United States. As a young(ish) faculty member, I found this to be a nice change. With that said, there was a respect for mealtimes and weekends. There seemed to be a heightened awareness that work should not interfere with leisure time."

"Another interesting lab culture difference," Ambrosini writes, "is that researchers in France don't seem to have the same 'martyr syndrome' (for lack of a better description) as many Americans do. What I mean by this is that it wasn't really seen as 'noble' to spend 50-60 hours-a-week in the lab, sacrificing your personal life for science. Many researchers put in a 40-45 hour week, but only worked weekends/overtime when absolutely necessary (although there were exceptions, especially for younger researchers who also had a teaching load). Interestingly, productivity didn't seem to suffer; in fact, it seemed people used what time they had in lab more efficiently. … The French place a high value on quality of life and family time, and they don't understand why we Americans kill ourselves with work. It was quite refreshing, actually."

Sean Kennan, a marine biologist at Nova Southeastern University Oceanographic Center in Dania Beach, Florida, also favors the more laid-back approach of French scientists: "The French do not work long hours, and they do not exhibit the strong competitiveness we do in the U.S. However, they collaborate and interact with one another almost feverishly on a daily basis. The constant exchange of ideas and teamwork leads to very quick results. They do not guard or hoard their ideas. Combined with the reasonable off-work time, I find the environment much more conducive to scientific productivity than what I experience in the American universities."

"They worked an 8:00-5:00 schedule," writes Dominick Casadonte, who studies the use of ultrasound for environmental mitigation at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. "It did help with my efficiency in the laboratory, though. And being required to leave the lab at 5:00 was actually a good thing, as it gave me more time to absorb French culture. And what culture!"

Among the scientists interviewed, only Carl Grossman, a physicist from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, encountered physicists who worked the same hours American scientists are expected to work. "The stereotype often promoted in the U.S. that French work only 4 or 5 hours a day, take long lunches, drink wine for lunch, etc., is completely false," says Grossman. "These folks work hard and long days, take their work very seriously, and strive to be at the top of their game."

For Ernest Schimmerling, a mathematician at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who spent part of a sabbatical in Paris, work and recreation blend together, which gives France particular appeal. "Mathematicians working together just talk through ideas or stare into space hoping to have one. Sometimes they go for a walk. This is particularly pleasant if the walk happens to be through Paris streets or along cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Fresh air is essential, especially if one of them smokes."

French Culture Part II: Everything Else

Although it's true that most scientists who choose to work in France do it for the science and not for the wine, Kennedy is an interesting exception. Being a wine chemist, his work took him to Bordeaux, where he studied the structure of phenols with Cédric Saucier in the Faculty of Oenology, Université Victor Segalen, Bordeaux 2. The focus of his trip was definitely the work, but his attention wasn't limited to the laboratory. "Being a wine chemist living in Bordeaux was absolutely cool! Some of the world's greatest wines are produced in this region of France, and the cuisine in the southwest part of France is awesome! I loved going to the market on Saturday mornings, eating lunch from 1 to 3 and dinner from 7:30 to ..."

"Certainly, the food and wine are great," agrees Ehlers, the Duke neuroscientist who is currently working in Bordeaux. "Market days in our town were amazing places to get all kinds of food. Once you are a regular at the market, merchants give you free samples to taste, show you new items, talk to you. It is really a great experience. Yes, lifestyle is really big." But you don't even need to leave your institution to enjoy French food. "Actually, the typical food in the university cafeteria for lunch was better than many of our four-star restaurants (roast duck for lunch?)," adds Casodonte. "I actually kept a food journal of just the lunch menus, they were so phenomenal."

But it wasn't just about the food and wine. "I was particularly fascinated by the history in France," says Kennedy. "As an American (a West Coast American at that), there is very little evidence that civilization has been here for more than a couple of centuries. Within Bordeaux and the surrounding area, there are Roman ruins, 13th century churches, medieval villages, and castles. Weekends were definitely spent exploring the surrounding area. In Bordeaux, daily shopping, the commute to work by tram--the whole ritual literally brings a smile to my face as I write this."

Okay, So It's Not All Good

Opinions vary on the quality of the food at French cafeterias and research institutions. Grossman says that at ENS-Cachan, just outside Paris, the cafeteria food was "a constant source of complaint."

The food there may not have been great, but at least he got fed. Ehlers didn't. "I've been here for 6 weeks," says Ehlers, "and I still don't have my lunch card to eat lunch in the cafeteria."

The French bureaucracy--Ehlers calls it "the wet blanket that smothers all ambition"--was the sole complaint of many of the scientists interviewed. Ehlers gives another example: "In order to rent a house, you have to have renter's insurance from a French insurer, but to pay for it, they do not accept cash and they don't accept credit cards--only payment from a French bank account." You guessed it: To get a French bank account, you need a French address.

"The French bureaucracy is infamous for a reason," adds Ambrosini. "Dealing with the French consulate is difficult," says Singer, who a month from leaving for France still doesn't have the visa he applied for in February, even though the documentation he provided was returned to him long ago. "They seem to be understaffed; they don't answer the phone, don't return phone calls or e-mails." What if the visa doesn't come on time? His answer demonstrates what most consider a healthy attitude toward the French bureaucracy. "I think I would just get on the plane. I might have to talk my way through customs."

Scientific, Personal, and Cultural Enrichment

"On a personal level," says Grossman, "traveling to another country expands your understanding of the world. I want my kids to know that there are ways to live other than the suburban America that they know so well. Both of my school-age kids went to the public schools, spoke French every day, and appreciate the experience. It's more than just interesting and educational. It removes barriers between people. My kids ate in other people's homes, made friends, and saw that kindness and humanity is universal. Similarly, by going to another country, working hard, and participating in a working relationship, we and our foreign colleagues see our similarities more than our differences. France and the U.S. have historically been partners in many tough situations, current politics notwithstanding. We are more similar than a lot of people would like to admit."

Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor .

Jim Austin is Editor of Science 's Next Wave and

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