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Sciences en Marche started at the Pic du Midi observatory in the Pyrenees this morning.

Sciences en Marche started at the Pic du Midi observatory in the Pyrenees this morning.

Rémi Cabanac

Scientists kick off a Tour de France for jobs and funding

French scientists today launched a 3-week relay race across the country by bike, foot, and even by kayak, aimed at pressuring the government to create more permanent jobs in science and better support universities and research centers. The race will culminate in a march to Paris on 17 October.

Sciences en Marche, as it's called, kicked off this morning when 25 scientists left the Pic du Midi observatory in the Pyrenees for a 10-kilometer walk down the mountains, after which another group of scientists took over for a 48-kilometer bike ride to the Center of Atmospheric Research in Lannemezan. Over the next 3 weeks, hundreds of scientists are expected to cycle all the way to the capital in 50-kilometer stages. The race coincides with the Fête de la Science, an annual national science festival.

So far, the government has given little indication that it will listen. On Wednesday, during a press conference to mark the beginning of the new academic year, the government announced a €45 million increase for public research and higher education in 2015, which Sciences en Marche spokesman Guillaume Bossis, a National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) biologist at the Institute of Molecular Genetics of Montpellier, dismisses as “totally ridiculous.”

In a press conference the next day, French Secretary of State for Higher Education and Research Geneviève Fioraso made it clear that the government had no intention to go beyond that commitment, Libération reported. “The solution in a stable budget isn’t to create additional jobs,” Fioraso said during the press conference.

The initiative for the race was launched in June by a small group of CNRS biologists in Montpellier, following a damning report by the National Committee of Scientific Research (CoNRS) that showed spending on R&D in France is decreasing relative to other countries and the number of new permanent posts at research centers and universities is going down. The protestors want the government to put in place a multiyear plan for scientific employment resulting in 10,000 new permanent positions for university professors, researchers, and support staff over the next 2 years, followed by another 3000 posts every year for the next 8 years.

Another key demand is more stable funding for universities and research centers. Basic government support for labs has dwindled over the years; competitive grants from the National Research Agency have partly replaced it, but that agency rewards only about 8% of grant applications, a “rather absurd” situation, Bossis says.

To finance their demands, the supporters of Sciences en Marche want to see France's generous research tax credit—which allows companies to deduct R&D spending from their taxes—slashed. The credit has come under fire for consuming an ever-larger chunk of the public science budget—now €6 billion—and being largely misused. “We can very easily set aside €2 billion … to fund public research,” Bossis says.

The collective will present their demands to the French Parliament during a street protest on 17 October that caps the race. Similar protests will be held in Spain and Italy around that same time.

The initiative has received broad support, including from CoNRS, scientific societies, young researchers’ associations, and trade unions. And it's only “the most spectacular” of a series of similar initiatives launched over the last 4 months, says Alain Trautmann, a researcher at the Institut Cochin in Paris and founder of the movement Sauvons la Recherche.