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Scientists disappointed by plan to boost France’s research prowess

National strategy will add €26 billion to the public research budget over 10 years — but many say it isn’t enough for the country to regain its place as a scientific leader.
French Higher Education, Research and Innovation Minister Frederique Vidal.

French research minister Frédérique Vidal presented the national research strategy.Credit: Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty

Scientists in France are divided over the creation of the nation’s first ever long-term strategy for research — a multibillion-euro plan designed to help the country to stand out in an increasingly competitive global research landscape. The strategy, which was detailed in a bill that was approved by the cabinet on 22 July and is expected to be passed into law by the end of the year, promises to boost the research budget, create thousands of research jobs, raise salaries and foster innovation. But many scientists agree that the initiative has failed to live up to expectations.

“It marks the end of 20 years of research-budget stagnation and raises salaries at last, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough,” says Patrick Lemaire, a biologist at the University of Montpellier and president of the French Society of Developmental Biology.

France’s leading scientists were optimistic about the plan when it was proposed in 2019, because it promised to address long-standing problems in research, by, for example, protecting budgets from politically driven fluctuations and raising the salaries of early-career scientists, who in France are paid 37% below the average for nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The plan approved by the cabinet delivers on many of these commitments, and makes an unprecedented investment in science, says the government. It adds €26 billion (US$30 billion) to the public research budget over 10 years, raising annual public funding for research by €5 billion, from €16 billion in 2020 to €21 billion in 2030. Of the new funding, about €7 billion will go to the National Research Agency, France’s competitive funding organization, to raise the grant success rate from 11% in 2014 to 30% by 2027. Another €4.5 billion will go to improving wages, and most of the rest will pay for blue-skies research grants, new equipment, operating expenses and technology-transfer projects.

But several scientists and research organizations say the plan lacks clarity and ambition, and complain that they weren’t given enough time to consult and feed back on the details, which were released only last month. The French Academy of Sciences in Paris acknowledges that the strategy will improve career prospects and pay. But it says that the €5-billion rise in the annual research budget is lower than the extra €7 billion needed to reach the European Union target of spending 3% of gross domestic product on research.

Antoine Petit, head of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), Europe’s largest basic-science agency, welcomes the plan overall. “It is an absolute necessity if France is to continue playing an international role in research,” he says. He points to a 13% drop in the CNRS’s investment and operating budget, from €288 million in 2010 to €266 million in 2020, as a key reason why greater investment is needed. “But all of us regret that the increases are greater at the end of the ten-year period than at the beginning. And although €25 billion is significant, we also would have liked to have [had] more,” he adds.

Salaries for early-career scientists will rise from 1.3 or 1.4 times the minimum wage to double the minimum, adding 10%, or €2,600–2,800, to gross annual earnings. “It is still not much for scientists with ten or more years of higher education behind them,” notes Petit. “But it is a first step.”

Lemaire adds that the appointment of another 5,200 long-term research staff at research agencies and universities, on top of the existing 170,000 staff, is only half of what is needed. He says that the way the funding will be disbursed will reinforce the research ministry’s grip on scientific strategy. “This is because the ministry will have to validate research agencies’ and universities’ research strategies before it allocates them funding. This is unusual for France,” he says. “It also means that research organizations will concentrate on their strengths, and minority disciplines in the humanities could well disappear.”

This bill is the result of more than a year of consultations with the scientific community, French research minister Frédérique Vidal told Nature in a statement. “It is vital today to give fresh impetus to research to bolster the economic recovery and to face the challenges ahead, while enabling France to remain one of the world’s major scientific nations. For this, we need to make scientific careers attractive.”

Updates & Corrections

  • Update 29 July 2020: This story has been updated with comments from French research minister Frédérique Vidal.

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