Top French scientists slam surprise budget cut

Quantum physicist Serge Haroche, a 2012 Nobel Prize winner, condemns the cuts in an interview with French news channel iTELE.

Télé

Top French scientists slam surprise budget cut

Scientists in France are up in arms after the government unexpectedly tabled a plan to cut €256 million from the country's research funds for this year. On Monday, seven Nobel laureates and a Fields medalist took to the pages of French broadsheet Le Monde to call on the government to reverse the decision. The cuts will “brutally destroy” France's research activities, the signatories warn in an open letter.

The presidents of the scientific councils of five national organizations, including the National Center for Scientific Research and the National Institute of Health and Medical Research, also expressed their indignation in a joint statement on Tuesday. But the French government says the measure is primarily a bookkeeping maneuver that won't have any practical impact on research activities.

The cut affects the Interministerial Commission for Research and Higher Education (MIRES), which is made up of ten funding programs covering most of France's public, civilian research efforts, and financed by six ministry departments. The aim is to "recalibrate" the working capital and cash flow of national science organizations, research minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem told parliamentarians on 24 May. “Their spending, the execution of their budgets, and the working conditions of researchers will not be affected," she said. If research organizations run into trouble because of the cuts, the minister even pledged to “take necessary measures to replenish their credits.”

The scientific community isn't buying it. Researchers' unions say the governments' plan amounts to “conjuring tricks” to downplay the cancellation of appropriations. Working capital “is not some sort of miraculous source of extra funding,” the SNCS-FSU and SNESUP-FU unions said in a statement.

“National research organizations will have to stop ongoing operations and ... limit the recruitment of researchers and technical staff,” the Nobelists wrote in their letter, adding that it will take years to repair the damage. The presidents of the scientific councils call the cut "brutal" and say that the government is reneging on earlier commitments and rushing through a decision that will turn young people away from research careers.

The government's plan was submitted to the finance committees in both houses of the Parliament last week as an “advance decree,” an emergency procedure that allows the government to modify budgets after the financial year has started.

On 24 May, the Senate's finance committee expressed concern that the MIRES is to bear about a quarter of the payment credit cancellations in the decree. This “brutal reduction” may hamper the quality of French research, the committee warns. The Parliament's lower house, the National Assembly, recommended that research funds be spared from the cuts, Le Monde reports. But the Parliament only has an advisory role in this process, and Christian Eckert, the state secretary in charge of the budget, told the newspaper that he would not change the decree.