France's socialist government has finally found someone to run its science and higher education policy. Yesterday, President François Hollande appointed Thierry Mandon as the new state secretary for higher education and research, a post that became vacant when Geneviève Fioraso stepped down in March for health reasons. The 3-month delay had sparked discontent among scientists, who said it betrayed a fundamental lack of interest in research. In April, trade unions called the empty seat "unacceptable."
Mandon, a political scientist by training, knows the world of research well. Between 1998 and 2014, he was president of Genopole, a biotechnology and genomics research cluster near Paris. “During these 16 years, Thierry Mandon has demonstrated a deep commitment to research and innovation. He also knows [the world of] higher education vey well,” Genopole Director-General Pierre Tambourin said yesterday. Mandon was elected to the National Assembly for the second time in 2012—he was a member before his stint at Genopole as well—where he got involved in higher education and student issues. Since June 2014, he has been state secretary for state reform and simplification, a job in which he was responsible for making French public authorities more efficient and user-friendly.
Mandon faces many demands. Trade unions want the government to make a new body for the evaluation of higher education and research fully operational, and they want a dialog about researchers' working conditions, including the situation of researchers and technicians on short-term contracts, the career progression of permanent staff, the place of women in research, and professional burnout. There has been a wave of protest in the past year in defense of permanent scientific employment and stable funding for universities and research centers. The recent €100 million cut in government funding for universities has fueled anxiety about the 2016 budget, currently under negotiation.
During his investiture yesterday, Mandon acknowledged the current “difficulties faced by the students, the researchers, some universities, [and] some centers,” though he didn’t give any specifics. New policies should target the daily life of students and researchers and include the promotion of quality at the individual and national levels, he said.
Researchers will judge Mandon first and foremost on his ability to stave off further cuts, says Guillaume Bossis, a biologist at the National Center for Scientific Research who is a spokesperson for Sciences en Marche, the group behind last year’s protests. "However, we fear that he will not have enough political power within the government to really change [the] situation,” Bossis writes in an e-mail to ScienceInsider. “We also hope that he will lend a more attentive ear to the academic world and its needs than his predecessor.”