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French research funding system is too 'rigid,' OECD says

French research funding system is too 'rigid,' OECD says

France's research system is "rigid" and "complex," according to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The study, released this past Friday, urges the center-left government of François Hollande to continue reforms set in motion over the past decade but criticizes France's tax credit system for R&D as ineffective and "too generous."

“French research … seems to be among the most inert in the world in terms of specialisation; the thematic distribution of publications has changed less than in the other countries since the early 2000s,” says the report, which was requested by the French government.

Most public science in France is centered around large national organizations, such as the French national research agency CNRS, which plan, fund, and carry out research. According to the review, some 10% of France's public research funds are awarded to specific projects on a competitive basis—the lowest figure among OECD's 34 member countries—compared with about 22% in Switzerland, about 38% in Germany, and 70% in South Korea. (The authors admit that the French figure is “slightly” underestimated, because it doesn't take into account the salaries of permanent staff members working on these projects.) The report recommends raising the percentage to stimulate competition and adjust research priorities more quickly.

Some reforms implemented in the past 2 decades—despite fierce resistance from researchers—have gone in the right direction, says lead author Dominique Guellec, head of the Country Studies and Outlook Division of OECD's science directorate. They include a law to give universities more autonomy from the central government, the creation of a national funding agency as well as an evaluation body, and a funding package called Investments for the Future that awards funding to select universities, launched under the center-right administration of Nicolas Sarkozy. “The system has changed, but we're only halfway there,” Guellec says.

The Investments for the Future program, for instance, has "the right overall approach with built-in evaluations and a focus on excellence yet is overly complex," according to OECD. The reforms have also encouraged setting up “joint research units” bringing together researchers from both universities and national organizations, but the authors say these labs are expensive to run because they “answer to multiple supervisory authorities.” 

The review also scrutinizes industry's weak science spending. French companies spend only about 1.5% of GDP on R&D, compared with 2% in neighboring Germany, for instance, although France has one of the most generous R&D tax credits in the world. The controversial Crédit Impôt Recherche (CIR)—which many have considered a government handout to big business since the system was reformed under France's previous, conservative administration—costs the French state more than €5 billion a year. (Last September, a report by France's court of auditors found that the system is poorly controlled and its success dubious.)

The credit is too generous with big companies and is not enough to help small and mid-sized companies grow over time, Guellec says. “[T]he real impact of the CIR seems to be in helping firms that do R&D to survive better than those that do not,” the report says, but not to push companies to invest more in research.

Whereas OECD's criticism echoes the concerns of French researchers about the CIR system, many of the report's recommendations would further alienate France's research labor unions and academic groups, which had hoped the current French government would dial back rather than expand on Sarkozy's reforms. In recent months, about 11,900 scientists signed a petition urging the government to backpedal on reforms that they say squeeze basic science and leave universities struggling for cash.

France's government has said it is “particularly sensitive” to several issues raised in the OECD report, such as improving the flexibility of research themes and making public support to private R&D more efficient. On the day the report was issued, the government set up a national committee, made up of 20 members and presided over by economist Jean Pisani-Ferry, to evaluate innovation policies and advise the government on its next steps.