Bright Spots for French Science Budget

PARIS—Higher education and research are one of the few budgetary bright spots on a landscape of gloom in France, as the economic crisis is predicted to push the country’s public deficit to a record high next year.

Valérie Pécresse, the higher education and research minister here, told reporters Thursday that her portfolio in the French draft budget for 2010, unveiled Wednesday, was “the top priority for the 3rd year running.” Earmarked spending for her realm is up, including inflation, 5.3%, to €29.2 billion from this year’s €27.7 billion, and should be the “springboard for the (economic) recovery,” she said.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has exceeded his higher education and research campaign promises from 2007, Pécresse declared. Cash allocations for those budget topics will have increased by an average of €2.1 billion a year between 2008 and 2010, against the €1.8 billion slated initially.

Even though many of the ministry’s key budget headings carry plus signs, the increases in funds for 2010 are smaller than the rises given for the current year’s budget. The budget for Pécresse’s ministry will rise by €1.8 billion overall, against a hike of €2 billion in 2009. As for research itself, it will receive a boost of €804 million, down from the €863 million increase last year. Moreover, another €731 million were injected into Pécresse’s budget this year, including €286 million for research, as part of the government’s economic recovery plan.

Featuring high among Pécresse’s objectives for next year are improvements in pay and career structure, and incentives for research agencies to step up coordination, privilege the best teams of researchers, foster innovation, and strengthen links between public and private sector research. She also said there would be no job cuts within her ministry this year or next.

Of the overall research budget increase in 2010, an extra €206 million will be channeled into the nation’s public research agencies—the rest of the rise will go to private industrial efforts or tax-credits—creating a 2.5% increase in total funding for the agencies, more than twice the assumed inflation rate of 1.2%. Of the 13 public science agencies, CNRS, the National Center for Scientific Research, will receive an additional €34.4 million, 2.5% more than this year; INSERM, the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research, €9.8 million euros, up 2.9%; and INRIA, French National Research Institute for Computer and Control Sciences, €5.5 million euros. The two biggest increases, 6.7% for each, go to the polar research agency Paul Émile Victor Institute and the Pasteur Institute. The budget for the National Research Agency will be almost flat at €868 million, but 50% will be set aside for basic research in 2010, up from 35% this year and 27% in 2007 when the agency was created.

Mathemetician Bertrand Monthubert, national secretary in charge of higher education and research for the French opposition Socialist Party and former president of the Let’s Save Research movement, wasn't impressed by such numbers. "The budget is a deception," he told ScienceInsider. "The government is saying it will spend lots of money but much of it is going to companies in the form of research tax-credits without any evaluation." He further argued that the government "refuses to create jobs, improve teachning, and develop research." 

The quest for statistical precision at Pécresse's press conference went round in circles at one point. “I don’t understand anything,” she lamented. But after a few calculations penned on a piece of paper, the minister derived an answer to one reporter’s query.

Pécresse is already looking ahead to the major government bond issue planned for next year to spur the economy, saying she hopes it will represent “a leap forward” for the science and technology sector. A seminar to discuss goals for her ministry’s slice of the bond issue will be held next Tuesday and will be attended by about 200 researchers and academics.