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French research minister Frédérique Vidal unveiled a science bill that would boost research funding—but not fast enough for some.

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French science bill promises boost to public R&D

The French government this week unveiled a draft science bill that promises to increase public research spending with an extra €25 billion over the next 10 years. French research minister Frédérique Vidal, who presented the bill to the Council of Ministers on 22 July, said the money fills an urgent need “to deeply refinance research.”

“There was a true demand for this law in the academic community,” says Patrick Lemaire, president of the French Society of Developmental Biology. The new funding would represent “some progress,” he says. “Paradoxically, the disappointment is immense because the needs were so great and we know now that, a priori, for 10 years we won’t have anything better.”

In addition to laying out a 10-year funding plan for the first time, the bill would raise salaries for scientists and introduce tenure-track positions, a novelty in France. The government says the measures will make research careers more attractive while also making French science more competitive. But many scientists see the employment changes as a threat to job security.

The government first announced its intention for the law in February 2019 and it was drafted after a nationwide public consultation. The goal is to raise the country’s overall R&D spending from 2.2% of gross domestic product (GDP) to 3% by 2030. With the extra €25 billion, the bill would slowly boost the overall research budget from about €15 billion per year to €20 billion in 2030. That would raise the public component of R&D spending from 0.8% of GDP closer to a 1% target. The National Research Agency (ANR), which funds researchers through competitive calls, would see its annual budget rise by €1 billion over 7 years to reach about €1.7 billion in 2027. The idea is to help raise its grant success rates from 16% to a target of 30%. Universities and other public research organizations would benefit, too, as the measure would raise grant overheads from 19% to 40% in 2030.

Still, the proposed funding falls short of many scientists’ expectations. Earlier this month, the French Academy of Sciences called for raising the annual public science budget far faster, reaching 1% of GDP within 5 years. In a statement, the academy says spreading the boost over a longer timeline “not only dilutes the effort but also, due to inflation, strongly diminishes its impact.” Some scientists also worry that most of the raises will be left to future administrations to enact. “If this government … really wanted to invest massively into research, it is in the first few years that it would focus the bulk of its effort,” says Patrick Monfort, a microbial ecologist at the University of Montpellier and head of a researcher trade union.

The draft bill also pledges to allocate €2.5 billion over the next 7 years to raise staff salaries in universities and public research organizations. The bill calls for tenure-track positions that would complement the permanent entry-level positions traditionally offered by the French system. These “junior professors” could receive an average €200,000 research budget and have up to 6 years to win tenure.

Although the academy sees the tenure-track positions as a way to create more academic jobs, Monfort sees it as another form of job instability. French science careers are attractive precisely because researchers can win a permanent position at a younger age than in other countries, he says. Since the beginning of 2020, research unions have protested what they see as the erosion of traditional cornerstones of French science—stable institutional funding, permanent employment, and academic freedom. They also criticized what they see as the forced passage of the law. The Parliament is now likely to pass the law in the coming months in an accelerated procedure.