Bold Promises, But How to Deliver?

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Science  28 May 2004:
Vol. 304, Issue 5675, pp. 1233
DOI: 10.1126/science.304.5675.1233

Within days of his appointment as France's science minister, François d'Aubert soothed riled researchers with promises of cash and jobs. Now he must show it is not a mirage

PARIS—When François d'Aubert took over as junior French research minister from former astronaut Claudie Haigneré last month, his first task was to quell the biggest revolt by the French research community in living memory. He and his boss, Education and Research Minister François Fillon, acted fast to stave off a lab walkout by bowing to scientists' demands for job protection and releasing millions of euros that the government had owed to research agencies (Science, 16 April, p. 368).

But many researchers are pushing d'Aubert not to rest on those laurels. Scientists such as Henri-Edouard Audier, a chemist on the board of directors of the country's main basic research agency, CNRS, are urging the government to seize a “unique opportunity” to overhaul research and boost spending to bring R&D up to the European Union target of 3% of gross domestic product in 2010. “Funding has a lot of catching up to do,” he says. Audier claims that CNRS would need a 40% budget boost next year “just to stand still.” There will be growth, d'Aubert assures—although he declines to be drawn on how much, because the budget is currently subject to intense negotiations within the government.

D'Aubert's political experience will undoubtedly come in handy. He has been a member of the National Assembly since 1978 and, in addition to a previous stint as junior research minister from 1995 to 1997, has held a number of parliamentary committee budget posts. In an interview with Science last week, the convivial career politician pledged a fatter research budget, secure jobs, and better pay for scientists. Also, he insists that France will not come away empty-handed in its rivalry with Japan to host the $5 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) (Science, 2 April, p. 26).

Zero-sum game.

D'Aubert says every tenured researcher who retires in 2004 will be replaced.


Q: France has a reputation for resisting change. Why should research reform happen now?

A: At least the word “reform” is seen in a positive light within the scientific community, which is more than can be said in certain others. There really is a dynamism for change and for rolling back conservatism. Up until now, there has been widespread mistrust of governments, both right and left. We have a unique opportunity to reform the French system for research and innovation: After a wide-ranging debate, the government will propose a law by the end of this year that will lay the foundation for the future.

Q: How do you envision the structure of French research, particularly the relationship between agencies and universities?

A: Agencies and universities are two pillars of the system. It is out of the question to get rid of either of them, but we must strengthen the links. As for financing, I am pragmatic. We must experiment with more projects financed by foundations and integrate research and innovation. Funding for projects should be provided for up to 5 years, as is the case in the United States.

Q: Your predecessor, Mme. Haigneré, called for the creation of a national science foundation for France based on the U.S. model, but you seem opposed to the idea. Why?

A: We are looking at the question, but it is impossible to make a carbon copy of another country's institutions, and anyway I am not sure that merging agencies would improve efficiency.

Q: The government has reversed the cuts of 550 tenured scientific posts that were at the heart of the protests. What is your policy on these posts for the future, especially in view of the large numbers of researchers who will retire by the end of the decade? Will you increase researcher pay?

A: We will maintain the number of tenured posts in 2004: Every retiree leaving a tenured post will be replaced under the same conditions. For subsequent years, there will be an open debate about scientific employment; no decision has been made at this stage. The government's announcement last year of more contract posts did not represent an about-turn in policy; it was to give greater flexibility for guest researchers. We intend to offer higher pay for these posts in the future so that we meet international standards for topflight scientists.

Q: What are the prospects for the 2005 R&D budget?

A: The 2005 budget is still being worked out, but we promise that it will be bigger than in 2004 and that by 2007 we will have allocated at least an extra €3 billion. We will not freeze or cancel any spending this year and will focus on ensuring that laboratories have enough cash to pay their operating expenses.

Q: What should the government's role in research be?

A: It should establish the foundation for competitive research. Therefore it should continue to finance most basic research and support applied research by industry. But the private sector must increase its contribution, especially to applied research. The French telecommunications industry, for example, should step up its spending; mobile phone companies are profiting from research without paying a single euro. I hope it will become part of their culture to offer something in return.

Q: Are you confident that Cadarache [in the south of France] will be awarded at least part of the ITER project?

A: Yes, I am confident that the proposal for an enlarged project to be shared between France and Japan will be approved. It will require an extra €900 million over 10 years, which France and a number of other countries are prepared to finance. We must find an agreement rapidly on this issue.

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