France set to get first national strategy for research

Plan promises funding stability and better career prospects for young researchers, but scientists say significant new investment is crucial.

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Édouard Philippe talks at the first convention of the director of the CNRS laboratories.

France’s Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced the plan at the 80th anniversary meeting of its national research agency, the CNRS.Credit: Xavier Pierre/CNRS

France is preparing to implement a national, multi-year research plan for the first time — a move warmly welcomed by the heads of the country’s major research agencies.

The details of the programme, unveiled by French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on 1 February, are yet to be defined, but the government says that it will protect research funding, boost the recruitment of early-career scientists and help France to stand out in an increasingly competitive global research landscape.

The programme should cut bureaucracy and give scientists more resources, allowing them to better plan for the future and freeing up more time for research, said Phillippe, who announced the move in Paris at an event celebrating the 80th anniversary of France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), Europe’s largest basic-research agency.

Fourteen chiefs of public research agencies, including the CNRS, enthusiastically welcomed the move in a joint statement. It “is an opportunity to ensure that France remains a major scientific country” at a time when international competition in research never been so intense — particularly from Asia, the leaders said. “We will play our part in the brainstorming that will take place,” the chiefs said.

Funding battles

Scientists in France have long complained that their research budgets fluctuate with political administrations — something that the strategy aims to address.

Publicly funded research in France is conducted mostly in university-affiliated labs run by research agencies such as the CNRS and field-specific bodies — for example, INSERM for biomedical science. Each receives a portion of the central research budget, about €8.8 billion (US$9.9 billion) for 2019.

Last July, a French parliamentary fact-finding mission backed the idea of a national research plan. Scientists, research leaders and members of parliament are currently advising on the programme, which will be modelled on a national defence strategy; working groups will look at funding, human resources to improve science-career prospects for young scientists and links between the public and private sectors to boost innovation.

The plan should be introduced in a law that the government intends to pass by 2021. Its details are still totally flexible, an adviser to the research minister said at a press briefing on 1 February — but it will cover at least three years and could coincide with the European Union’s next major research-funding programme, Horizon Europe, for 2021–27.

Philippe did not specifically mention whether the programme would bring extra funding for science, but the adviser said that an increase in the research budget is part of the plan, with the aim of raising France’s public and private research spending to 3% of gross domestic product, up from an average of 2.2% over the past 4 years. The plan reflects the government’s commitment to science, said the adviser: “Previous governments said research was a priority, but none of them followed through with the action.”

Budget concessions

Reactions from the research community have been mixed.

“I look forward to seeing the details, particularly the size of the budget and the policy on recruiting young scientists, but I am optimistic by nature and consider the bottle is half full rather than half empty,” says Frédéric Dardel, a former molecular-biology researcher and now president of Paris-Descartes University.

He adds that because the long-term programme should be in place before the presidential general elections in 2022, it will help to stabilize research policy and funding, regardless of who wins.

But some have taken a dimmer view. “We have been asking for a multi-year investment plan for more than 15 years, with an increase of €1 billion a year over 10 years,” says Patrick Monfort, secretary-general of the French National Trade Union of Scientific Researchers (SNCS-FSU). “The three areas that will be discussed are important, but there is no official mention in the announcement of increasing the budget,” he says.

Moreover, the ‘Yellow Vests’ movement — which saw weekly demonstrations across France in late 2018 — resulted in tax concessions from the government in a bid to appease protestors, which could lead to freezes on the research and other budgets later this year, Monfort says.

“Without more cash for labs, and better pay and conditions for scientists at all levels — not just the young — I believe we will end up with just a new centralized mechanism for steering research and be no better off than we are now,” he says.

RogueESR, a collective of people working in higher education and research, says that it had hoped for more from the announcement, and it was “business as usual” until the details are worked out. RogueESR is currently protesting against the CNRS’s intention to hire only 250 permanent researchers a year instead of 300. The group is circulating a petition that has gathered nearly 12,000 signatures.

Nature 566, 164 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00484-4

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