Researchers at the France's Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Europe's largest fundamental research agency, have rejected proposals to slash the size of the body that evaluates its laboratories and administers recruitment.
The recommendations that the national committee of the CNRS should be drastically reduced in size were made by Claude Allègre, French minister of national education, research and technology. The committee, which also plays a major role in shaping CNRS's research priorities, comprises about 40 sections covering various disciplines, each made up of scientists from the research agencies and universities.
Allègre wants to halve the number of sections as part of his plans to reduce bureaucracy in French science (see Nature 388, 7; 1997).
But many scientists have argued that a much reduced national committee would lack the manpower and expertise to carry out evaluation properly.
A recent report commissioned by CNRS from Jean Pailhous, a CNRS researcher at the Université Aix-Marseille 2, also recommended that the sections only be reduced to 36 (see Nature 392, 8; 1998). This view gains strong support from the results of a three-month consultation at CNRS, which is due to be released shortly.
It shows that three-quarters of all CNRS laboratory directors oppose any large reduction in the number of sections in the committee, with only 10 per cent supporting such a move. Similarly, 81 per cent oppose a reduction in the number of members in each section.
A narrow majority — 54 per cent — agreed that CNRS's seven departments should play a larger role in running the agency. A further 30 per cent who opposed this said they would accept it if assurances were given that the departments would base their strategic thinking on that of the national committee.
The result confirms the profound attachment of CNRS researchers to the national committee, which is unique in that two-thirds of its members are elected directly by the scientific community. Indeed, most researchers want the current balance of elected scientists to be maintained, with only 2 per cent of those questioned supporting a reduction of this proportion to less than 50 per cent.
One member of the CNRS administrative council predicts that, given this broad resistance, Allègre is unlikely to be able to proceed with his proposed reforms. A clearer idea of what, if any, reforms of the committee are envisaged should emerge in two weeks' time when the CNRS administrative council itself is due to propose a series of reforms for the agency.
The main change is likely to be a reinforcement of the role of the administrative council in strategic planning, in particular by being involved from the outset in preparing reforms and decisions.
Although the board votes on the budget and other strategic issues, at present its role is largely restricted to rubber-stamping proposals from the director-general. But Allègre is keen that administrative councils should play a real role in setting strategy at all the research agencies, including the medical research agency INSERM (see below), and that the director-generals should be more concerned with day-to-day management.
Meanwhile, the scientific trade unions, having gained the scientific community's backing in their opposition to Allègre's proposals to dismantle the national committee, now seem to be supporting other changes to reduce bureaucracy, increase international input in evaluation and encourage multidisciplinarity.