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Molecular geneticist and university administrator Frédérique Vidal is France’s new minister for higher education, research, and innovation.


Two female scientists and a militant environmentalist join Emmanuel Macron’s new government

Science will have a bigger voice in the next French government. Newly elected President Emmanuel Macron announced yesterday that a molecular geneticist–turned–university administrator will head the new ministry of higher education, research, and innovation, while a highly respected physician-scientist is France’s new health minister. Both are women—as is fully half of the new cabinet.

But perhaps the biggest surprise was the appointment of the immensely popular green activist Nicolas Hulot at the new Ministry of “Ecological and Solidarity-based Transition.” Hulot—who has called Donald Trump’s retreat from the Clean Power Plan “a crime against humanity” and who wants to phase out nuclear energy—is credited with major changes in French environmental policy in the past decade—but always from outside the government.

Frédérique Vidal, 53, the new research minister for science, spent most of her career at the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis, where she increasingly focused on education and climbed through the administrative ranks until becoming university president in 2012. The fact that Vidal “knows the sector … is a good thing,” says Patrick Monfort, secretary general of SNCS-FSU, a trade union for researchers based near Paris.

The French Conference of University Presidents (CPU) welcomed Vidal’s appointment in a public statement yesterday. CPU says it's also an “excellent signal to the university community” that research and higher education once again have a full-fledged ministry, after being relegated to the level of secretary of state by former President François Hollande in 2014. Macron, who has promised to kick-start the economy through science, also added the word “innovation” to the ministry’s title.

The other researcher in the new administration is Agnès Buzyn, who will head the health ministry—a post Macron had promised to give to a physician. Aged 54, Buzyn spent most of her career as a clinical hematologist studying leukemia and bone marrow transplantation at Paris Descartes University and the Necker Hospital. A former president of the French National Cancer Institute, Buzyn has played many high-level science policy roles and is highly respected among her peers. But as French newspaper L’Express reported yesterday, some have criticized her for questioning the need for scientists working with the pharmaceutical industry to declare their conflicts of interest.

And as it happens, she has a bit of a conflict herself: Buzyn is married to Yves Lévy, who leads the €1 billion French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM), which is jointly overseen by the research and health ministries. Le Monde reports that Buzyn will not handle any issues related to INSERM, but details of the arrangement are unclear. As the paper points out, the ministry interacts with the institute on an almost daily basis.

Meanwhile, the appointment of Hulot, 62, has excited French friends of the environment. A former nature documentary maker, Hulot arrived at the first cabinet meeting today in an electric car and without a tie. He instigated the inclusion of an environmental charter in the French constitution in 2005 and triggered a national policy debate that led to two new environmental laws in 2008 and 2010 that seek to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, promote renewable energy, and better regulate pesticides. As a special envoy of the French president for the protection of the planet, he helped prepare the 2015 Paris climate conference.

According to French newspaper Le Monde yesterday, Hulot hopes to reform the tax system to make production and consumption more sustainable, and to set in motion a transition toward sustainable energy. He also wants to start a national debate on sustainable food production.

Hulot toyed with the idea of running for president himself in the last three presidential elections, but has repeatedly declined positions in previous governments. The big question is how much of his agenda he can deliver in Macron’s centrist administration, however. Monfort—who studies the impact of climate change on pathogenic water bacteria at the University of Montpellier—hopes Hulot’s nomination means that he “has secured some guarantees” about what he will be able to do.

Update, 19 May, 6.30 a.m.:  The paragraph about Buzyn's conflict of interest has been updated.