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French research also being stifled by autocracy

Your Editorial 'Scientific glasnost' (Nature 464, 141–142; 2010) highlights parochial anachronisms in the Russian Academy of Sciences that are obstructing the development of a knowledge-based economy. Russia is not alone: science in France has been experiencing similar problems.

Unfortunately for Europe, French politicians do not seem to have properly understood that research is crucial for an efficient economy. Germany is not the only country to demonstrate that research investment of at least 3% of gross national product (GNP) has positive short-term and medium-term effects on the country's industrial output, thanks to inventions and start-ups — less populous nations such as Switzerland and Finland have shown the same.

However, in 2006 France spent only about 2.1% of GNP on research and development — a proportion more typical of a developing country. Former socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin had planned, before his 2002 defeat, to expand this to more than 3% of GNP. And in 2007, socialist presidential candidate Segolène Royal vowed to put research at the top of the government's priorities; however, she was not elected. So the decisive victory by a left-wing coalition in France's regional elections last month offers some hope. Even so, the issue of research was notably absent from the pre-election evaluation of regional priorities (Nouvel Observateur 11 March; 2010).

The old French devils of centralism, dirigisme and corporatism in politics and science still prevail. France's main research body, the CNRS, has about 30,000 members and was once an independent agency, relatively successful in basic research. It is now being suffocated by integration into a university system that has shown little competence in managing top-level research. The recently acquired autonomy of local universities is being undermined by plans for their fusion into super-universities.

Also dispiriting is the French government's plan to take responsibility for research investment away from the regions once more — despite the fact that regional investment has just given an essential boost to local public research in places such as Strasbourg, Toulouse, Marseille and Montpellier (see, for example, http://go.nature.com/XDPeN2).

Patience is necessary in Russia, where problems may be explained by the country's recent history. The failure of present-day France to comprehend the issues and implement the policies necessary for economic success is more dangerous and distressing.

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Scherrer, K. French research also being stifled by autocracy. Nature 464, 1266 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/4641266a

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