French election

Let science speak for itself

You've heard what the presidential candidates think the challenges facing science in France are. Nature also canvassed opinion across the French research spectrum: from young researchers to reformers and industrialists. Declan Butler reports.

This online version contains additional material not published in print. There is also a guide to the issues and acronyms.

Pierre Chambon

Biologist at the Institute of Genetics and Molecular and Cellular Biology in Illkirch near Strasbourg, of which he was formerly director.

The common assertion that French research is doing badly is untrue; it's doing badly in some sectors, with life sciences the main concern. The French research system hasn't been organized in 40 years. There's duplication in biology across the CNRS, INSERM, INRA and the universities that's damaging competitiveness. We need a single life-sciences agency, plus perhaps a second for more applied work, to bring together the best life scientists and give them the means to do top-quality research.

Biotech companies and universities compete for the best scientists worldwide. But France's civil-service pay scales mean that a biologist earns the same as a sociologist or anthropologist. This makes it impossible to attract the world's best biologists, but life sciences in France cannot survive on French researchers alone.

In France, most scientists start and finish their careers in the same organization, whether this is a research agency or a university. There are two separate corps of scientists, some teaching and researching, some doing only research. This is inefficient, because you want less effective researchers doing more teaching, and the best researchers doing less, according to their success in winning grants. For this to work, we need to have just a single corps of researchers, all attached to universities, with the research agencies transformed into research councils. The efficiency of French research won't improve without more flexibility about who gets what during their career. France wants top research but rejects élitism; that's not possible.

French researchers took to the streets in 2004 in protest at what they saw as the government's attitude of neglect towards science. Credit: E. DESSONS/JDD/GAMMA, CAMERA PRESS LONDON

Biology also lacks a strong industrial lobby in France to push for greater public support. When the US National Institutes of Health's budget doubled in [the] five years [to 2003], France's was flat. The French drug industry is weak, comprising mainly Sanofi-Aventis [a multinational with much of its research in the United States] and a few other companies.

In Strasbourg, our institute was the first in Europe for molecular geneticists, and in the top 10 worldwide. But soon we will have lost all our top foreign scientists. This is not just because of the salaries; people would prefer to stay in France because of the quality of life. But they feel they are wasting their time having to look right and left for scraps. They can get better working conditions, and salaries, abroad.

There's no point in creating more posts unless people are given the means to do top-quality research, and there's no point in increasing funding if we don't reform our structures, otherwise it is like watering sand. Unless we attack the problems of the research agencies, modernizing French research will be mission impossible. We, the researchers, want reform.

The Grande Ecoles, such as the ENS in Paris, have come to dominate French higher education. Credit: D. MONNIAUX

Edouard Brézin

Physicist at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris and ex-president of CNRS and the French Academy of Sciences.


The low attractiveness of science and engineering careers is a big problem in France. The young are increasingly turning to other careers. Moreover, the best students aim not to go to university or to get a PhD, but to graduate as an engineer from the élite Grandes Ecoles, as this offers better career prospects. So although at present French research is strong in many fields, I'm not at all sure that this will still be the case in 10–15 years time.

“France has a chronic problem building links between public and private research. In French industry those in management rarely have any research training. Edouard Brézin”

The high teaching loads imposed on young scientists starting work at a university prevent them from doing research during the very years when they should be cutting their research teeth. They are recruited on the basis of research talents, and we then annihilate their chances of establishing themselves. New recruits need to be freed up for research.

France has a chronic problem building links between public and private research. The concept of wealth creation in public research is perhaps less naturally engrained in our culture than in the United States and Britain. But I'm also struck by the fact that in French industry those in management rarely have any research training, as most are graduates of the Grandes Ecoles. Companies also tend to have a negative view of people with a research background — an engineer from one of the Grandes Ecoles who also has a PhD might be best advised to hide that fact in job interviews.

The relationship of universities to the Grandes Ecoles is one of many important questions facing the university system. There are important issues that need to be tackled to reform university governance, and to give them greater autonomy than they have in today's homogenized national system. But there hasn't been a major reform of French universities for decades, so all of these questions are off the radar.

The new ANR has its pros and cons. It's beneficial in that it makes it easier for young research teams to attain funding, but the central government still decides research priorities and nominates management teams. Compare this with how its German counterpart, the DFG, is run; there the management is largely elected by the scientific community on the grounds of their scientific expertise. They are two different worlds.

That said, the French scientific community also needs to reform itself. The research agencies and universities elect various committees and evaluation panels, and I've long fought with the community for people to be elected on merit, and not on trade-union criteria. When I receive a voting bulletin, it doesn't give any indication of whether the candidate has even published in the past 5 years, just their trade-union profession of faith. It's incredible, ridiculous: a system from the Middle Ages.

Maïwenn Corrignan

President of the Young Researchers' Confederation and a sociologist at the University of Rennes 2 in Brittany.

Last year's decree that the PhD is a professional qualification was a real advance for young scientists here. It put an end to the widespread practice — particularly by research charities — of paying postgrads a minimal salary without benefits (or no salary at all). This change forces research agencies to provide contracts and pay social security and pension benefits, and also means postgrads on short-term contracts subsequently qualify for unemployment benefit.

“Many scientists would prefer not to stay at one research organization for their entire career, but there are too few bridges to allow greater mobility. Maïwenn Corrignan”

The financial uncertainty of PhD students and the lack of recognition of the value of a PhD in recruitment was one of the main factors behind the street demonstrations of 2004. We don't want a postdoc system. It won't work in France, which has a culture of full-time employment; recruiters have a negative view of scientists with multiple short-term contracts as perpetual students.

We need a change in mentalities. Many scientists would prefer not to stay at one research organization for their entire career, but there are too few bridges to allow greater mobility between research agencies, universities and industry.

Better career guidance is also needed, so that the young are aware of opportunities beyond the research agencies and universities, both in industry and outside research. Things are improving; more than 20% of PhDs now go into industry, and that trend is increasing. Companies are also beginning to recruit, and value, those with PhDs. The young aren't disinterested in research; it's the poor working conditions that put them off.

Alain Trautmann

Cell biologist at the Cochin Institute in Paris and an instigator and former spokesman for the movement 'Save Research' that led protests in 2004.


In 2004, the scientific community in France organized an emergency nationwide science summit, and proposed a rash of reforms. But the government ignored them, and pushed ahead with its own. We are not against reform, but want changes to be decided in consultation with the science community. Successive governments have instead tried to impose unworkable reforms.

“The fact that the Grandes Ecoles divert the brightest young people away from science is catastrophic. We need to evolve the French system, taking such realities into account. Alain Trautmann”

The current government is trying to impose an American system on France, without taking our history into account. They act as if the CNRS and the Grandes Ecoles, the main elements of the French system, don't exist. The fact that the Grandes Ecoles divert the brightest young people away from science is catastrophic. We need to evolve the French system, taking such realities into account.

In 2004 we proposed that, to make science more attractive to the young, the government tie its generous tax relief to companies not just on the basis of their degree of investment in research but also according to the number of trained scientists with PhDs they recruited. This could create change, and would not cost the state any extra, but the government rejected it. Ideologically, it was opposed by the lobby of the Grandes Ecoles, whose engineering graduates dominate the state apparatus.

The government also wants to make the universities the centrepiece of the research system. But France is currently one of the worst-placed countries in terms of investment in its universities. The universities that perform well are those that have joint laboratories with the CNRS. I'm not for maintaining the CNRS just because it already exists, but it's naive to believe, as some in government do, that one can simply abolish the CNRS overnight. Doing so without first reforming and reinvesting in the universities would just make the system worse.

André Choulika


Chief executive of Cellectis, a biotech spin-off from the Pasteur Institute in Paris.

France's competitiveness in research and innovation has emerged as an election issue in the 2007 presidential campaign. Significant investment in the life sciences in 2005 — €2.4 billion [US$3.2 billion], or 25.7% of the 2005 civil research budget — has so far failed to deliver the anticipated socioeconomic benefits.

“The multiplication of publicly supported research organizations and structures has resulted in a failure to concentrate funds behind ambitious projects. André Choulika”

The money has not been spent optimally. The multiplication of publicly supported research organizations and structures has resulted in a failure to concentrate funds behind ambitious projects, and no clear policy for increasing competitiveness. The creativity and talent of French researchers is undisputed, but the quality of the country's research has deteriorated in recent years.

The ANR is a step in the right direction for improving research, provided it is given transparent governance and true independence. There is a need for greater translational research, and a culture that recognizes and rewards those whose research is outside the mainstream and ahead of the curve.

It seems timely to recall De Gaulle's famous quote: “We have plenty of researchers who seek, what we're seeking is researchers who find.” The greater the confidence our leaders have in the quality of their researchers, the greater the latter's achievements will be.

Philippe Froguel

Geneticist at Imperial College London (ICL), a French expat.

I quit France for Britain in 2000, because I was frustrated by a system that refuses to recognize and reward success, and in which promotion can depend more on political skills than on scientific merit. Funding is not sufficiently tied to results, and evaluations fail to distinguish excellent from average research. Money is spread thinly among many institutions and fields, with insufficient focus on strengthening the best campuses and teams.

As chair of genomic medicine at ICL, I've discovered that a world-leading university can offer a unique range of opportunities to the most entrepreneurial academics. This is almost impossible to imagine in France, where universities and research institutions lack power, and are overly centralized and bureaucratic. Britain's academic world is unashamedly élitist, with constant evaluation of projects and outcomes. Institutions have long-term visions, and recruit a critical mass of the best scientists in order to achieve them. At ICL, individual success is rewarded in salaries and bonuses.

French universities should be given autonomy from the central government, which currently nominates chairs in medicine. Funding should be focused on just a handful of the best medical schools and university hospitals on the basis of a regular research assessment akin to the UK Research Assessment Exercise. And a single French Institute of Health should be created to end the inefficient competition among the many research players in the life sciences.

William Rutherford

Biophysicist at the Atomic Energy Commission's Photosystem II: Photochemistry, Water Oxidation and Regulation Institute in Saclay, near Paris; a British expat in France.

The French national sport is whingeing. They are very good at complaining about what's wrong with the research system. But they overstate the case. I did my PhD in London, and postdocs at the University of Illinois [at Urbana-Champaign] and the RIKEN Institute of Japan, and I think the French system is great in its own way.

The system is very different from elsewhere. There are peculiarities, such as the system of the Grandes Ecoles, and also much greater stability, in particular when starting out, because of the rolling grants funding system, and better job security. Coming here after my postdoc wanderings, I found it all very weird.

The system certainly has its weaknesses, and the French focus on these. But the truth is that there is much that is positive about the French system. Some things are better in the United States and Britain, but others are much better here. I really do believe that not having the huge pressure to publish before the next grant deadline allows you to do better science.

I also often see my US competitors, who are extremely good, go through patches in which they are less so. It's often to do with the loss of a grant or staff; they lose their expertise, and take time rebuilding it. Our lab, probably one of the best in the world for photosynthesis, doesn't have that problem. France is a great place to do what we do.

There are downsides. Where should I start? France's legendary red tape is true bureaucracy for bureaucracy's sake. If you don't let it get to you, you can get your job done. Fixed salaries across the board are also a painful point, especially early in one's career.

Fixed salaries probably hit recruitment in sectors such as biotech, but are less of an issue in basic research. I could earn much more in Britain or the United States, but here I can do the science I want. Our lab also has no difficulty attracting foreign researchers. People love the lifestyle in France.

In reforming research, France must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Much as I approve of certain aspects of the new ANR's competitive grant system, I certainly don't think that France should adopt an Anglo-Saxon system; the diversity of international systems is a richness that we should preserve. I would hate to see French research lose its unique character in an ill-advised attempt to copy the United States.

The following material is web-only additional text

Bertrand Monthubert

Mathematician at Paul Sabatier University in Toulouse and current president of ‘Save Research’.

French researchers keep being told they should adopt an Anglo-Saxon system for research funding, yet if you look at Britain’s share of world publications, its drop is, in fact, the same — 13% from 1999 to 2004. That said, we are not opposed to funding research on the basis of competitive projects. But we are opposed to the government’s eagerness to use project funding for short-term strategic research, while at the same time cutting back on the research agencies that offer labs long-term stable funding.

INSU [the National Institute for Earth Sci-ences and Astronomy], for example, must plan expensive long-term ocean expeditions, and carry out its own peer review of missions. But current budgetary difficulties mean that it is having problems putting together expeditions for France’s contribution to the International Polar Year.

You can’t do this sort of research with 3-year project grants. The comparison of the French ANR to the US National Science Foundation [NSF] is inaccurate; the NSF often provides rolling funding for labs, much as the CNRS already does. France’s centralized history allows us to carry out evaluations of laborato-ries at the national scale. The United States cre-ated its National Institutes of Health to obtain precisely that sort of overall vision, a common evaluation system. With the ANR, we risk giv-ing labs large sums of money for 3 years, and then nothing more.

We support funding by project for new research areas in which France is lagging. We also support it as a way of bringing together the various research agencies. There are too many research agencies in France, and simplification is long overdue.

Increasingly, it is the science ministry that decides research orientations. They should leave it to the scientists to decide for themselves what the most important scientific opportuni-ties are. Scientific progress cannot be made by decree.

In addition, instead of simplifying the struc-ture of the research system, the government has multiplied new structures. We have hubs of competitiveness, thematic hubs and the-matic networks. The list goes on. A single lab might be attached to four different hubs, all linked to others. Each of these structures has its own boards, meetings, statutes, funds, and requests for grant proposals. Just to get their job done, researchers have to juggle new layers of bureaucracy and all sorts of different calls for proposals.

French science does have serious difficulties, and there is worse to come, because the nega-tive impact of recent government policies will take time to show.

Soumitra Dutta

Chair of business and technology at the European campus of INSEAD, a top business school in Fontainebleau, near Paris.

One should not underestimate France’s strength in research and innovation. Innova-tion is much more complex than scores on this or that indicator. There are many factors that contribute to innovation, from infrastructure to human capacity, the ability to bring research to the market, and the complexity of doing business in a country.

At INSEAD this year we created a Global Innovation Index that combines more than 80 formal indicators on innovation, as well as informal surveys of the opinions of chief executives worldwide. France ranks fifth in the index, with the United States leading, followed by Germany, Britain and Japan.

France’s strength lies in large technology-based companies in many sectors. It has been less successful in spawning new high-technol-ogy businesses, such as information technol-ogy. It also suffers from complexity in doing business, and inflexibility in its labour markets makes adapting to change difficult. Its lack of top research universities and the poor quality of tertiary education are weaknesses. Globali-zation means that success in innovation is now highly dependent on attracting top talent, and France isn’t succeeding in this area.

France needs to realize that success in inno-vation also depends on factors outside France. Foreign talent is a critical factor, and no coun-try can succeed without it, but talent is now globally mobile. If a country doesn’t have the best universities it won’t get the best students, and it won’t have the best universities unless it can attract the best researchers.

An open attitude towards skilled immigra-tion is also key, and this is going to be a massive problem for France’s future. It ranks 61st in the world in terms of reducing obstacles to skilled foreign labour; Britain is 12th, a factor that largely explains its economic boom. Measures such as automatic work permits for skilled staff are a magnet for talent.

Immigration is such a politically charged issue in France that policies relating to it are a mess. France needs to be more open to skilled immigration, and needs to learn how to make foreigners feel at home — a key factor in the high-tech success of the United States.

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Butler, D. Let science speak for itself. Nature 446, 850–853 (2007).

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