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Researcher battles CNRS reforms

Medal winner rallies French scientists.

Claire Lemercier, 'gunslinging chick'? Credit: F. STUCIN/MYOP

The French are not unaccustomed to anti-establishment protest, but the latest revolt against government reform is headed by a heroine as unlikely as Joan of Arc.

Claire Lemercier, a 31-year-old researcher at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, seemingly appeared from nowhere to help spearhead a movement that last week forced key concessions to a major government reform of the CNRS, Europe's largest basic-research agency.

It all began in early June, when Lemercier heard that she was to receive the top medal for promising young researchers, an annual CNRS award. The government had just announced that the CNRS was to be broken up into six quasi-autonomous national institutes, a move widely interpreted as a dismantling of the agency.

The medal “immediately made me think of the orchestra playing on as the ship sinks”, says Lemercier. She decided to rally other medallists to protest against the CNRS reforms and to show that the protest was not limited to left-wing trade unions and researchers scared of greater competition, but also included award-winning scientists.

Success was immediate. More than 450 medallists, including the cream of French science, have endorsed her text, which protests at aspects of the CNRS reforms, and a lack of staff and budgetary resources to implement them.

“I was pleasantly surprised at how many renowned medallists signed up — people far better known than me. I'm just the last in of the medallists,” Lemercier says.

Lemercier's initiative gave fresh and timely momentum to researchers who were already resisting the reforms and generated broad media attention. Libération newspaper ran a full-page profile on Lemercier, describing her as a thorn in the ministry's side under the headline “Gunslinging chick”.

The protest movement culminated in more than 1,000 researchers invading the CNRS's Paris headquarters on 19 June and preventing the agency's board from adopting the reform. Science minister Valérie Pécresse has since made concessions that trade unions say saves the CNRS from being immediately dismantled, although they remain vigilant.

Whereas the principle of hiving off the CNRS into national institutes is retained, the revised reform would guarantee that all CNRS disciplines are represented — life sciences, the CNRS's largest discipline, as well as computing, had been relegated in the initial reform to departments. “This concession is really important, although we are still worried about how it will pan out concretely in practice,” says Lemercier.

Moreover, the CNRS, and not the government as was planned, will now appoint the heads of the institutes. This latter move had been widely perceived as an attempt by the government to take control of the CNRS. The agency will now be fully responsible for planning and managing the institutes, which will run their own laboratories. And for the first time, they will also act as research councils, giving grants to outside labs. That is something many researchers welcome, says Lemercier.

The new reforms were adopted by the CNRS board last week, but the details will not be thrashed out until the autumn. For her part, Lemercier says she has no ambitions to pursue her activist career further, and is keen to get back to her research.

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Butler, D. Researcher battles CNRS reforms. Nature 454, 143 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/454143a

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