France cuts its ‘big science’ spend to bolster lab research

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French research agencies have been told by research minister Claude Allègre to cut FF200 million (US$31 million) from their budgets for large scientific facilities, to provide extra money for laboratory research.

The national space agency, CNES, which accounts for half of the spending on large programmes, will absorb half of the cuts. To achieve this, the agency will put on hold plans to launch Corot, a space telescope designed to study the seismology of stars and look for extrasolar planets, in 2003.

The Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and the atomic energy commission, CEA, will share the remaining FF100 million in cuts.

At the CEA, the cuts will affect France's contribution to two particle detectors for the Large Hadron Collider at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), in Geneva, Switzerland, and the heavy-ion accelerator at Ganil in Caen.

France's contribution to two satellites planned by the European Space Agency — First, which observes primordial galaxies, and Integral, which studies stellar explosions — will also be affected. The research minister, a long-standing critic of manned space flight, has also said he will cut back on France's contribution to the International Space Station.

On arriving in office two years ago, Allègre announced his intention to cut the budget for large equipment, which accounts for FF4.6 billion this year and FF4.8 billion next year.

Even though the 8.4 per cent of France's research budget spent on large equipment is no more than that spent in the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States, Allègre considers the spending of these countries excessive.

According to ministry figures, spending on big science has grown by 69 per cent over the past ten years. In contrast, general financial stringency has meant that spending on research projects has increased by 34 per cent over this period, while the overall research budget was up by only 22 per cent.

Allègre's bid to reduce spending on large equipment has prompted him to seek international cooperation for future projects. One result has been the controversial decision in August to join up with British plans to build a new synchrotron, rather than construct a French machine (see page 451 in this issue and Nature 400, 489; 1999).

While many researchers applaud Allègre's commitment to laboratory spending, not all are pleased with seeing the money drained from big-science facilities.

“It's true that the CNRS labs are poor,” says Edouard Brezin, president of the board of the CNRS. “But these cuts are going to make it pretty difficult to run the machines that we are using. We don't know right now how to resolve this.”

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McCabe, H. France cuts its ‘big science’ spend to bolster lab research. Nature 402, 453 (1999) doi:10.1038/44922

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