French research minister waters down CNRS reform

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French science minister Claude Allègre has asked the directors of France's main research agency, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), to come up with more moderate changes to the agency's structure than those initially proposed by the government last year.

In a letter to CNRS president Edouard Brézin and director-general Catherine Bréchignac, Allègre asks them to focus on recruiting young scientists and increasing the mobility of researchers. The minister also says the reforms should concentrate on developing new disciplines, reducing administrative loads, and moving towards the “europeanization” of large-scale facilities and scientific evaluation.

To attain these objectives, Allègre writes: “I ask you to concentrate on some essential aspects that permit a deep modernization, without revolutionizing the organism”. Earlier, more radical proposals were withdrawn after protests from the scientific community (see Nature 397, 463; 1999). Following disputes between research unions and the research ministry, prime minister Lionel Jospin appointed a parliamentary commission to study research reforms.

The commission spent three months consulting French scientists, and reported its proposals to the minister in July. But although much was said about the need to reform the CNRS, no action has been taken within the organization itself.

“This is only the prolongation of a process that has been going on for some time,” says Brézin of the new reform proposals. But he is optimistic that it is a step in the right direction. “The project one year ago came as unexpected from the minister and myself, and that was a mistake. This time, I think we have taken a different approach. Now we are instructed to negotiate with the boards and the unions.”

The scientific community may be soothed by Allègre's wish to preserve the National Committee for Scientific Research. His desire to slim down the committee was one of the more controversial aspects of last year's proposals. The committee acts as the ‘parliament’ of the country's scientists, and is involved in evaluating laboratories and administering recruitment.

Brézin says that one of the most urgent needs is to open up the seven scientific departments of the CNRS to allow disciplines to interact.

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McCabe, H. French research minister waters down CNRS reform. Nature 402, 708 (1999) doi:10.1038/45326

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