PARIS, March 8 (AFP) – Leading members of France’s scientific establishment are threatening to resign en masse Tuesday to protest against a funding crisis which they say is forcing growing numbers of young researchers to pursue their careers abroad.
The directors of hundreds of laboratories and research institutes are to meet at the city hall in Paris to decide whether to carry through the threat, or to back down in the face of the extra money and mediation promised in recent days by Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin.
Many of the country’s 105,000 public sector researchers are to stage a one-day strike in support.
Launched in January to protest against what it said was the centre-right government’s weakening commitment to public sector science, the movement “Save Research” has won the backing of some of France’s top specialists as well as more than 60,000 signatures to a national petition.
Raffarin and his science minister, former astronaut Claudie Haignere, have taken steps to defuse the anger, unblocking frozen credits, setting up a national commission to study the future of French research and on Friday promising EUR 3 billion (USD 3.7 billion) in new money over the next three years.
The spokesman for “Save Research” Alain Trautman dismissed the offer as a restatement of President Jacques Chirac’s undertaking to bring funding up to three percent of national product, but there were signs that many scientists considered the government’s efforts to meet their demands as significant.
“I think Mr Raffarin has come to appreciate the seriousness of what is at stake, because what we are dealing with is the future of French society, its economic influence and cultural potential,” said Edouard Brezin, vice-President of the Academy of Sciences, who has sought to mediate in the crisis.
The protesters say the amount of money dedicated to research in recent years – some nine billion euros on 2004 – has barely kept pace with inflation, and that recruits with as many as 10 years of training are forced to emigrate because of poor pay and lack of new jobs.
In 2000 some 3,000 science graduates left for the US alone, and others are drawn to Canada, Switzerland and Japan, according to official figures. Every year France creates some 11,000 new potential researchers, but only between 30 and 40 percent can be absorbed in the public sector.
However critics argue that much of the problem lies with an archaic scientific organisation, with poor links to private industry, bureaucratic rigidity and a civil servant status for all staff which means they have jobs for life.
“The car is rusty and engine out of date. You can’t make it go faster by pumping it full of petrol,” the conservative daily Le Figaro newspaper said Monday.
The urgency of reform was underlined in a highly critical official report published in the financial daily les Echos into the management of the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) – with 11,000 researchers the country’s largest scientific establishment.
“The inertia of CNRS stands in stark contrast with the fast-moving world of research,” the report said, describing it as an “organisation possessed of considerable means but minimal capacity to control how they are spent.”
The report noted that two-thirds of the CNRS’s EUR 2.5 billion budget goes on staff salaries, and criticised a system of co-management with trade unions which meant that there was no proper method of self-evaluation. As a result poor or outdated research projects were allowed to continue indefinitely, it said.
Subject: France news