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French scientists revolt against government reforms

Strike threatens to undermine Sarkozy's overhaul of universities.

Strikes have swept across France. Credit: J.-P. CLATOT/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

University lecturers and researchers in France began a national strike on 2 February over a draft decree that would change their job descriptions and procedures for promotion.

The row has brought to a head simmering resentment among many researchers over ongoing broader reforms of research and higher education. It has been further fuelled by President Nicolas Sarkozy's criticisms of the country's researchers in a fiery speech last week.

The government's decree seems, at first glance, fairly innocuous. For the first time, evaluations of university researchers will include their contributions to teaching and university governance, and not be based solely on their research. Universities will also be given the power to change how much time staff spend on teaching and research.

So why has the decision provoked such a vocal and widespread outcry? One reason is that university researchers are used to being assessed nationally. The new policy, which is in line with the government's overall goal of giving universities greater autonomy, transfers that responsibility to the university president and board.

Scientists fear that cash-strapped universities might cut research time and force them to do more teaching, at a time when posts are being cut. In an open letter co-authored by Albert Fert, a 2007 Nobel laureate in physics from the University of Paris-Sud, top academics last week expressed worries that the changes would give university administrators too much control over scientists' work, and risk "clientship and localism".

Such concerns reflect the fact that French scientists generally trust the established peer-review processes of the national research and higher-educational bodies, and are wary of evaluations and decisions made locally at their institutions.

In an attempt to allay these concerns, Valérie Pécresse, the minister of research and higher education, released a modified decree on 30 January that sets limits on teaching hours, and assured researchers that there would be national safeguards put in place for university promotion decisions.

Profound disarray

The spat is the first major test of the government's law on university autonomy, which was accepted with a general consensus in August 2007. Only now are the first effects of its implementation being felt. The first 20 of France's 85 universities became autonomous on 1 January 2009. They have been freed from central administrative control and are now allowed to manage their own budgets, staff and buildings, and to hire and set salaries as they see fit.

The promise of university autonomy lured Axel Kahn, a renowned geneticist at INSERM, the national biomedical research agency, to accept the presidency of the University of Paris-Descartes. Kahn, a long-standing proponent of reform, says that a major cause of researcher resentment is simply that so many reforms are being made simultaneously, prompting "profound disarray" and revolt among some scientists.

But there is also a deeply entrenched resistance among many researchers to the changing roles of key research bodies.

“I don't believe we can change any country's research system so quickly. ”

The large French research agencies such as the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) have their own scientists and labs, and conduct most of the country's research. But Sarkozy wants to transform them into research councils, with their operational activities eventually merging with or transferring to the universities.

Many researchers fear that the government is acting too hastily, and that the university system is not ready to take on the additional research activities. "I don't believe we can change any country's research system so quickly [as the French government wants]," says one CNRS official, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals. That's particularly true in France, he says, where most universities have been neglected for decades, and have focused on teaching large numbers of students, with most of the research being done by the agencies.

Philippe Froguel, a French scientist who heads the genomic medicine department at Imperial College London, says that he is fully in favour of plans to "responsibly transform" French universities. But, he says, apart from rare major research universities such as Kahn's, most French universities are far from ready for full autonomy. They have little experience in managing human resources and research programmes compared with the national research agencies, he says.

Kahn says that for him the right balance would be for universities to become the major operators at the local level, with research agencies maintaining their vital roles at the national and international level. "The government's vision needs to be refined a bit," he says.

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Butler, D. French scientists revolt against government reforms. Nature 457, 640–641 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/457640b

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