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French research chief quits over reforms

Plans for restructured agency prompt resignation.

Paris

Bernard Meunier, president of France's basic-research agency, the CNRS, resigned on 5 January. The move brings to a head simmering internal tensions over the future of the 26,000-member body.

The CNRS has declined to comment on the resignation, apart from issuing a short statement by Meunier. In it, he makes public his disagreement over the reform plans of the agency's director-general, mathematician Bernard Larrouturou. In principle, the president defines the general goals of CNRS policy and the director-general carries them through, but in practice the latter holds the reins of power.

The reforms came into force on 1 January. They are meant to encourage multidisciplinarity, wealth creation, the development of labs outside Paris, and tighter links with French universities. The structural reforms are due to be completed later this year by a ‘strategic plan’ that will lay out future policies in more detail.

As a result of the reform, the CNRS's eight existing departments have been regrouped into four broad departments — life sciences, chemistry, humanities, and maths and physics — and two ‘cross-cutting’ departments — engineering and the environment, and sustainable development.

Meunier, a chemist, regards Larrouturou's reforms as unnecessary management interference that he believes will weaken science at the agency. He thinks that the new configuration of departments would complicate rather than simplify matters, with laboratories often belonging to several different departments at once, and he questions how the cross-cutting departments would work.

The reforms also create five regional CNRS boards, and Meunier argues that this would add an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy, and hand excessive power to the regions, weakening scientific imperatives from central management. “He feels that it risks creating five little CNRSs,” says Jacques Fossey, a chemist who is head of the research union SNCS and a member of the CNRS board of directors.

Bernard Meunier has resigned over changes to France's research agency. Credit: C. LEBEDINSKY/CNRS PHOTOTHÈQUE

In his resignation statement, Meunier slams the reforms as “an excessively administrative network” and not the “simple and dynamic mode of functioning” that the agency needs. He adds that he hopes his resignation will lead to a new team that is “more adapted to the actions the CNRS needs to take to assure its place in French and European research”. Fossey believes Meunier intended to provoke a crisis, gambling that this would force the government to remove Larrouturou and appoint a new management team.

The upset comes just as the research agency's dominant role in French science is in question. The CNRS funds its own labs, but research will increasingly be driven by competitive grant proposals administered by the National Research Agency, a body set up last year with an initial budget of €350 million (US$423 million), which will rise to €1.5 billion by 2010.

The CNRS's power would be further reduced by a long-awaited research and innovation reform bill, due to be voted on by the National Assembly next month. This would create a national Agency for Research Evaluation, responsible for looking at all research agencies, labs and scientists, a job currently done by the CNRS national committee.

As Nature went to press, the French government was tipped to appoint as Meunier's successor Catherine Bréchignac, a physicist and president-elect of the Paris-based International Council for Science. Bréchignac was director-general of the CNRS from 1997 to 2000, and earned a reputation as a staunch defender of the agency's autonomy.

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Butler, D. French research chief quits over reforms. Nature 439, 122–123 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1038/439122b

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