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CNRS Researchers Take Up the Fight Against Allègre's Reforms

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Science  18 Dec 1998:
Vol. 282, Issue 5397, pp. 2162-2163
DOI: 10.1126/science.282.5397.2162

PARIS—Ever since taking the post of France's research minister in June 1997, geochemist Claude Allègre has made no secret of his intention to reform the CNRS, France's giant basic research agency. Since the reform bandwagon began rolling 2 months ago, CNRS scientists have been demanding a national debate on the issue, which Allègre has steadfastly refused. Now, researchers have taken matters into their own hands. On 14 December, the CNRS's national committee—made up of more than 800 researchers from all over the country, representing the agency's 40 scientific sections—flocked to Paris to confront the minister's proposals head-on.

No-growth funds.

Support for CNRS lab research (in constant francs) has remained stagnant despite economic expansion.

CREDIT: CNRS

The gathering, which took place in the city's ornate House of Chemistry, was historic: The national committee has met only four times in full plenary session since its creation in 1945, and this was the first time it met at the request of the researchers themselves. Like many events in French history, the daylong meeting had its share of fireworks. Many scientists heatedly attacked Allègre's plan—which seeks to create closer ties between the CNRS, the universities, and industry—and the research ministry's representative at the meeting was nearly booed off the stage when he attempted to defend the reforms.

CNRS researchers began mobilizing last October, after physicist Edouard Brézin, president of the CNRS's executive board, unveiled proposed changes in the agency's statutes drafted in collaboration with Allègre and his staff. The changes would require all CNRS labs to associate with partners in universities, industry, or other research agencies (Science, 23 October, p. 607). They would also give Brézin and the executive board greater control over CNRS's scientific direction, a move widely seen as an attempt to weaken the authority of physicist Catherine Bréchignac, CNRS's director-general. Indeed, earlier this year, Bréchignac had resisted Allègre's attempts to cut by half the number of scientific sections—and, by implication, diminish the stature of the national committee itself, which plays an important role in recruitment and evaluation of researchers.

Underlying the protest are years of smoldering dissatisfaction with the conditions for doing research in France, including stagnant research budgets which, in the face of ever rising research costs, have made it more and more difficult for scientists to keep their labs running. But Allègre fanned the flames with what many see as a heavy-handed attempt to use the CNRS to solve the chronic weakness of French university research.

Although 90% of CNRS labs are already associated with universities and other research partners, there is a widespread fear among researchers that forcing the remaining labs to go this route is a first step toward making the CNRS subservient to the universities—a suspicion reinforced by a provision in the revised statutes that would put the agency under the authority of the education ministry as well as the research ministry. (Although these functions are joined in one ministry under the current government, they have often been split under previous governments.) Many researchers believe that the university system—which has no real research strategy of its own—cannot hold up its end of a research partnership. “The last place to put research in France is in the universities,” says physicist Harry Bernas, who works in a CNRS unit on the Orsay campus of the University of Paris. “They can't cope with it. The French university system is straight out of Kafka.”

Despite the tense atmosphere, Bréchignac opened last Monday's national committee meeting on a conciliatory note. “Our [research] minister, with the brusque manner that we all know … has told us to get moving, and he is right,” she said. Although Bréchignac had lately been keeping a low profile after opposing Allègre's earlier reform efforts, she had given her tacit approval for the meeting to take place. But other speakers took a harsher line, warning against tying the CNRS too tightly to the universities. Nobel physics laureate Claude Cohen-Tannoudji compared the centralized but research-weak French university system unfavorably with that of the United States. “To do university research the way it is done in the United States is illusory,” he said. “French universities don't have real autonomy and the teaching load is too heavy.” And Henri-Edouard Audier, a chemist at the Ecole Polytechnique near Paris, argued that there could be no real partnership between the CNRS and the universities until university professors and instructors were able to contribute equally to the research effort. “The day [their] teaching load is cut in half, there will be no more problems of mobility between [the CNRS] and the universities,” Audier said.

Brézin says that researchers' fears that the CNRS will be absorbed into the universities are misplaced. “This idea that a closer approach to the universities will weaken the CNRS is false,” he told Science. Brézin also criticizes the rebellious attitude many scientists have taken toward Allègre's attempts at reform. “This wish of researchers to be independent of all control is not legitimate.”

But the simmering resentment at what many researchers see as Allègre's attempts to cram reform down the throats of French scientists burst into open anger during a speech to the meeting by geophysicist Vincent Courtillot, who was formerly Allègre's chief adviser and last week was promoted to be the ministry's director-general for research. Courtillot's speech was interrupted a number of times by boos and catcalls, particularly when he told the delegates that they represented only the CNRS and not French researchers in general. And his critique of the failure of research to pay off in economic terms, capped by the assertion that “the unemployed have created more businesses than have researchers,” was met with loud cries of “False! False!”

Indeed, most researchers were very surprised at Courtillot's confrontational tone, and his talk was openly condemned throughout the day as a deliberate “provocation” that came directly from Allègre. But whether or not Allègre's intention was to make French scientists angry, he seems to have succeeded in uniting them as never before. Chemist Pierre Potier, director of a CNRS institute in the Paris suburb of Gif-sur-Yvette—site of one of the largest remaining CNRS installations not linked to a university—summed up the feelings of many researchers. “We agree with the minister that things must move, but not just in any old direction.”

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