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After meeting Nobelists, French president backs off ‘suicidal’ science budget

French President François Hollande (right) and mathematician and Fields medalist Cédric Villani at yesterday's meeting.

Présidence de la République

After meeting Nobel laureates, French president backs off ‘suicidal’ science cuts

Some of France's most illustrious scientists were outraged—and yesterday, their president listened. After meeting five Nobel laureates and a winner of the Fields Medal, the world's top honor in mathematics, French President François Hollande has canceled more than half of an unexpected €256 million cut in research and higher education budgets that had caused consternation in the country's scientific community.

The six laureates and two other Nobelists likened the cuts to "scientific and industrial suicide" in a letter published in Le Monde last week. The presidents of the scientific councils of five national agencies called the measures, introduced to offset unforeseen government expenses, "brutal" and said they would discourage young people from entering science.

But in a meeting at the Élysée Palace in Paris at the president's invitation, "it was immediately clear that he was convinced by our arguments," physicist and 2012 Nobel Prize–winner Serge Haroche of the Collège de France in Paris tells ScienceInsider. "He understood that this was giving the wrong signal to the scientific community."

Hollande agreed to take off the table cuts totaling €134 million that would affect four major agencies: the National Center for Scientific Research, the National Institute for Agricultural Research, the National Institute for Computer Science and Applied Mathematics, and the Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission.

The deal leaves another €122 million in reductions in place, most of which target higher education, says Patrick Monfort, secretary general of the SNCS-FSU, an influential union of scientists. "We're not entirely satisfied," Monfort says. But the cuts to the four agencies were the most controversial, he says, because they would have immediately imperiled ongoing research and the recruitment of young scientists. Research and education now provides a more reasonable share of the €1.1 billion that the government needs to balance its books, he adds.

Haroche says Hollande also promised his visitors that he'll try to free up more money for research and for France's universities in the government's next annual budget. "He understands the importance of research for the country," Haroche says. "He told us it's part of the culture and the intellectual appeal of France abroad, and he does not want to jeopardize that."