Nicolas Sarkozy during his visit of "Nano Innov" building yard in Saclay

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy was unable to reconcile his championing of more competitiveness in research with his concerns that societies must better value well-being.Credit: Eric Feferberg/Reuters/Alamy

In 2012, France’s then-president, Nicolas Sarkozy, used a cycling analogy to explain why he was determined to promote more competitiveness in the country’s research system. “I love watching the Tour de France,” he told Nature, before adding: “We’ve never seen the pack accelerate because those at the rear go faster; the pack accelerates when the leaders accelerate.”

Sarkozy was defending plans to provide extra funding to a select group of universities, out of keeping with France’s usual model of egalitarian pay and funding from the state (Nature 484, 298–299; 2012). It was part of a package of measures that also included giving universities more autonomy in setting budgets, borrowing capital for investments and paying higher salaries to researchers. Sarkozy wanted more scientists to think of themselves as entrepreneurs, producing commercially successful products from their work. His government also wanted more French universities to achieve high positions in the global rankings.

Some reforms were undoubtedly overdue, and Sarkozy’s vision, continued by current President Emmanuel Macron, has started to bear fruit. Macron has introduced legislation that will add €26 billion (US$30 billion) to France’s research budget over the next decade. And, as we have reported, Paris-Saclay University, which was formed this year, is 14th in the 2020 Academic Ranking of World Universities, marking the first time a university in France has made it into the top 20 of one of the main league tables.

Impressive accomplishment

These are noteworthy achievements. Funding increases on such a scale are rare, as is the sight of a new institution vaulting onto a ranking list. But the latter is expensive, too. To create Paris-Saclay, the government spent €5.3 billion and merged 14 separate research and higher-education institutions just outside Paris into a science super-campus. The new university hosts more than 300 laboratories and around 100 companies. A €2.9-billion metro line from Orly Airport is being built to help accommodate the needs of its 30,000-strong workforce, which is projected to increase to 80,000 in the next decade.

France’s reforms are under keen scrutiny by many countries, especially those that have also made it a national policy to see their institutions in the major rankings. But in addition to the monetary costs, they must consider the human costs of creating a research culture in which early-career researchers employed on temporary contracts are required to compete for grants. France is embarking on a journey well travelled by other countries, notably the United States and the United Kingdom. When academics must compete for jobs, funding, promotions and publications, those who meet metrics of success carry on, while many others are forced out. The toll on researchers’ health and well-being, especially for those early in their careers, is sadly well documented.

It is partly for this reason that university ranking systems are coming under the spotlight and researchers are starting to ask how they can be reformed. Last month, a working group from the International Network of Research Management Societies showed in a preliminary report that when a ranking tries to capture the tapestry of the world’s universities in a single composite index, it inevitably fails to fully measure the diverse ways in which institutions provide benefits to students, staff and other stakeholders. A single indicator also struggles to value that part of a university’s mission that cannot easily be captured by conventional performance metrics — such as the well-being of research staff. One of the group’s recommendations is for ranking systems to avoid producing composite indices. Instead, it says, they should adopt the dashboard approach, publishing separate numbers for the various things being measured.

Loss of security

Before the Sarkozy–Macron reforms began to take root, the French system was designed to look after staff well-being. This is one reason that the reforms remain controversial among France’s research unions and opposition parties.

In the past, French universities were, at least in theory, funded according to a principle that the state should treat all institutions equally because they are all responsible for the same thing: educating the nation’s young adults and producing scholarship.

Researchers, moreover, had the status of public servants and were hired on permanent contracts. Salaries, although low by the standards of developed countries, were set mostly according to a national scale, which made them transparent and predictable. As a result, early-career researchers experienced less of the precariousness that plagues the research systems of the United Kingdom and the United States, where most early-career researchers are poorly paid and have little job security.

But secure employment and the general well-being of staff tend not to be recognized. Instead, the Academic Ranking of World Universities, for example, puts weight on publications in Nature and Science, and on awards such as the Nobel prizes and the Fields medal. Unable to persuade the rankers to change their criteria, Sarkozy and Macron opted instead to change France’s research culture. They did this by introducing competitive grant funding, temporary contracts for early-career researchers — and Paris-Saclay.

This decision was surprising, in part because Sarkozy is the same president who established a commission to investigate ways of creating measures of economic and social progress that value leisure activities, time spent with family and other things that contribute to quality of life but are not captured in composite global economic indices such as gross domestic product. Sarkozy wrote passionately in the foreword to the commission’s 2010 report, Mismeasuring Our Lives, that it is important for societies to measure the things that matter across a range of individual numbers — the dashboard approach. He pledged France’s full support for these efforts.

The creation of a new university is rightly a source of pride and achievement for France. Paris-Saclay must fulfil the hopes of a nation and the dreams of its young people. But France’s government needs to take a harder look at its latest competitiveness agenda, now that researchers have had time to study the impacts of such policies elsewhere. It should strive for the best of both worlds: to produce research that benefits society, balanced with support for the well-being of those on the academic front line.