Thierry Mandon, France's research and higher education minister. Credit: Chamussy/SIPA/REX/Shutterstock

Major changes are coursing through France’s research and higher-education system, many of them intended to simplify bureaucracy and promote research excellence. In 2013, president Francois Hollande's government passed a law to accelerate the consolidation of the country’s fragmented landscape of universities, prestigious ‘grand écoles’ and research-agency labs, into regional clusters that could develop common research policies and pool services. And last week, science minister Thierry Mandon — who was minister for state reform and simplification before taking on the research and higher-education role last June — announced the outlines of 50 measures to reduce researchers' paperwork and administrative burden.

I spend my time telling French researchers to sell themselves a bit better

Nature talked to Mandon at his office in Paris's historic Latin quarter, where — with the aid of a whiteboard on his wall, bare but for a dozen priority items — he spelled out what he hopes to achieve in the year remaining before presidential elections in 2017. The interview has been translated from French and edited for length and clarity.

What are the most urgent items on your to-do list?

To simplify the rules that govern higher education, and research. To have more PhD students and researchers recruited by companies and by the public sector, and so instil a culture of research in the places where decisions are made. To help universities to develop their own sources of income, so that they can be more independent of the state. To promote a renaissance of the social sciences. And to spur the digitalization of higher education.

What about research funding? In January, leading scientists warned that France’s basic research is endangered by a lack of funding, citing in particular ‘ dramatic ’ cuts at the National Research Agency (ANR).

The ANR has seen its annual budget fall by around €250 million (US$285 million) since 2012, to around €550 million. As a result, the success rate of grant applications is too low, at just under 10%.

As President Hollande announced in March, we plan to increase the ANR’s budget by 10% this year, and by 20% next year, to bring it back to €800 million by 2018 — around the same level as its peak in 2008. In this way, we aim to boost the success rate of grant applications to between 14% and 20% in 2017.

Researchers have been critical of ANR bureaucracy. We plan to introduce a series of 50 reforms, most of which will take effect later this year, to lessen the administrative burden throughout the research and higher-education systems. Among these measures, and taking effect at the end of April, are that the process of preparing grant proposals for the ANR will be greatly simplified, as will procedures for their assessment. Intermediate evaluations of projects that get approved will also be simplified, along with their administrative follow up.

Universities also complain that funding is tight?

Higher education and research have been sheltered from deep public-spending cuts elsewhere to reduce the deficit. Since 2012, the budgets for the universities have increased by about €600 million — an increase in real terms, although relatively small. The budgets of the research agencies [such as France's National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), and INSERM, its National Institute of Health and Medical Research] have more or less been stable since 2012.

The difficulty is that we are seeing large increases in the number of new university students, on the order of 3–4% annually, because in France, universities cannot select students [anyone who passes the baccalaureate, school leaving exams, has the right to undertake a degree], and have low enrolment fees, so are relatively accessible. So if we look at the relatively weak increase in the budget and the increase in student numbers, we have a reduction in the amount per student, although still slightly above the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] average. When I accepted the role of research minister, I asked for more money to establish a better balance. Late last year, the government agreed to add an extra €100 million to the 2016 budget.

Yet the government gives away around €5 billion annually in the form of tax credits to encourage French companies to increase their spending on research. Do these research tax credits provide value for money?

I think it's now really time to re-evaluate the system of tax credits. The aim of the tax credits is to increase the amount of research done by the private sector. I don't understand how, with tax credits representing some €5 billion annually in aid to companies, the level of private-sector research funding remains relatively stable — up just 2.5% last year. The tax credits are also controversial because of the lack of jobs created. Our private-sector research is still much too weak.

What else do you hope to put in motion before next year’s elections?

We want to reinvigorate the social sciences. Research in the social sciences remains very focused on publications — but value will be created through greater contact with the hard sciences and through social-science researchers informing business and policy leaders. For example, after the terrorist attacks in France last year, the CNRS got all the relevant research groups working to better understand the problem of radicalization

We plan to launch new research programmes, with a big initiative at the University of Paris-Sud’s campus d'Orsay (southwest of Paris), which will bring together much of our expertise in the social sciences, including demography, anthropology and geography.

France has often had a reputation of lagging in innovation — yet French start-up firms seem to be an emerging force.

Over the past ten years, France has made large strides in making it easier for researchers to become entrepreneurs and create companies. The problem is that we don't succeed in making start-ups grow. Our start-up companies remain very much ‘start-ups’. How to remedy this is a really complex question. Part of the problem is industrial policy; a structural question of financing the development of companies, including a lack of venture capital and people qualified in quickly identifying and helping promising companies to grow.

The other problem is that the strategy of start-ups is too often to be bought out by firms in other countries. I was in Japan recently, and officials I talked to there think it’s great that they can buy the companies that France creates. But French research funding does not have the vocation of funding the industrial development of other countries.

There's still too little direct contact between companies and universities, and we are working on finding ways to improve this. Wealth creation really must become one of the missions of the universities. Moreover, the universities are still 90% dependent on state funding, and generate too few of their own resources, and so they cannot truly be autonomous. More direct links with companies could also allow universities to generate more durable financing themselves.

Is part of the problem of the perception of French science that the research community seems to promote its successes much less than do, say, its US and UK counterparts?

It is a problem. I spend my time telling French researchers to sell themselves a bit better. Take the example of the recent discovery of gravitational waves. There was a simultaneous press conference in Italy, in France and in the United States. What was extraordinary was that in France, it was a low-key event in a miniscule room at CNRS, where our researchers expressed everything very modestly. By contrast, at the US event [at the National Press Club in Washington DC], one had the impression that we were at a White House event.

I'm not saying that French researchers should become as excessive as the Americans can sometimes be in their capacity to sell their advances. But in the modern world, we need to be a bit more promotional to make our excellence in research better known. At the same time, I respect a lot the sort of ethical aspects of their modesty, which has a good side. But I think French researchers need to communicate a bit more.

From afar, it often seems very difficult and complicated to create change in France. But universities are innovating. My big message is that France is in the process of profoundly changing, and that even researchers and others within the system often aren't really taking the measure of that change.