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France seeks slim rise to research budget amid spending cuts

Frederique Vidal (c) talks to reporters outside the College of France

French research minister Frédérique Vidal (centre) says research budgets are still going up.Credit: Nicolas Messyasz/SIPA/Shutterstock

The French government has called for a modest increase to its higher-education and research budget for 2019 as it strives to rein in public spending amid a sluggish economic growth forecast.

The budget for the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation would rise by 2% in 2019, to €25.1 billion (US$29 billion), under a draft national budget announced on 24 September. However, the figures announced do not account for inflation, estimated at 1.3% for next year.

Of this money, €8.8 billion is earmarked for research and innovation, a roughly 4% boost from 2018. This includes €6.9 billion for basic science, which gets a 2.5% rise.

About €6 billion of the total will go to the nation’s public-research agencies — which include the large basic-research agency CNRS and competitive grant funder the ANR — although it is not yet clear how much each will get.

Parliament must debate and vote on the draft budget before the end of the year.

Many ministries

Research minister Frédérique Vidal says the figures are positive: if the proposals are approved, the ministry’s budget will have risen by 5.3% in 2 years, she told a press conference at the Paris-Saclay science park outside the capital on 25 September. The pots for basic research and the ANR would rise by 8% and 9.3%, respectively, over the same period, she said.

Vidal’s ministry handles the bulk of France’s public spending on higher education and research, but five other ministries — economy and finance, ecology transition, agriculture and food, defence and culture — also receive money for these purposes. In 2019, this will amount to some €2.8 billion.

Patrick Lemaire, a biologist at the University of Montpellier in France and founder of the researcher-led campaign group Sciences en Marche says he thinks that this division means research could end up getting a raw deal. France has no chief scientist, so “no one defends the science budget”, he says. After positive signals from the first budget under Macron in 2017, this year’s budget is mediocre, he says.

Patrick Monfort, secretary-general of the French National Trade Union of Scientific Researchers (SNCS-FSU), also takes a dim view of the budget proposals. He says that, in particular, the ANR would need more money to raise its grant-appplication success rate. “The rate struggles to reach 13% now, and will rise to only 14% at most next year,” he says.

Innovation nation

During the budget announcement, economy and finance minister Bruno Le Maire stressed innovation as a priority, and as something that France must invest “massively in” to spur prosperity.

But, as for research, innovation spending is in the hands of several ministries and is boosted by indirect support from tax breaks, so it is difficult to see whether spending has increased overall.

The government’s proposals include €386 million in direct subsidies for companies engaged in innovation, and €250 million for start-ups and other innovative ventures from the Innovation and Industry Fund, which was created in January.

A new artificial-intelligence programme — announced by President Emmanuel Macron last March — received €17 million from the research ministry’s budget, and €12 million under the prime minister’s Investments for the Future programme. The investments programme mostly spends money on higher education and translating research results into applications, but its budget will drop by 3.7% in 2019.

Further, the government decided against the idea of easing certain restrictions on the Research Tax Credit (CIR) — a controversial scheme that allows companies to deduct some of their research and development spending from their taxable income. The CIR costs taxpayers about €6 billion a year — but some, including student protesters who were at Paris-Saclay science park, think that abolishing the CIR would free up more money for research.

Basic research

Although the proposed allocation for the CNRS is not yet clear, Monfort is concerned about what the tightened budget might mean for the agency. He says that CNRS chief Antoine Petit told research unions in June that it plans to make some cuts to hiring. It intends to hire 250 permanent researchers a year rather than 300, and 310 engineers or technicians a year, over the next 4 years.

“This means about 340 permanent posts will be cut by 2022, on top of the 1,351 that have been cut since 2007,” says Monfort. “In view of the number of staff taking retirement over the period, this will be catastrophic,” he says. Monfort thinks that the CNRS should recruit at least 350 permanent researchers a year to maintain the current level. The CNRS declined Nature’s request for confirmation of the figures.

However, according to Monfort, Petit proposed that the CNRS would fund 500 doctoral students a year over 3 years, in addition to those funded from external sources.



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