Credit Alain Trautmann

Once upon a time, the tale of how French scientists lost their autonomy

Protests concerning the French government’s policy on public research and higher education (PRHE) has arisen in France during the course of 2014. Several researchers’ movements have emerged in parallel. The first,  back in 2013, stems from people working in higher education opposing the fusion of existing institutions into mega-universities, headed by professional managers’ teams,. The second, in June 2014, whereby tens of thousands of scientists signed a petition against low levels of recruitment within the ranks of the national scientific research agency CNRS. And the third, Sciences en Marche (Science in Motion) originates from Montpellier University, is about to start on 27th September 2014. Interestingly, these protests are taking place five and ten years, respectively, after the previous research activism movements of 2004 and 2009.

So why such protest? After all, the global national effort for R&D has been globally stable for the last 10 years. However, behind this apparent stability, there have been major changes in the reality of the public research and higher education sector, in particular, in relation to its organisation. As a result, it has been affecting the daily life of scientist in France. Besides, the dual mainstream universities versus elite schools system (grandes écoles, who are not focused on research) is such that French PhDs are not as valued in their own country as they would be in foreign laboratories.

The change in PRHE policy stems from a series of reforms pursued by French President François Hollande and research minister Geneviève Fioraso—following in the wake of reforms initiated by Nicolas Sarkozy, and his research minister Valérie Pécresse. They view their policy as an improvement of the French system over the last ten years that need to be continued further. However, for a vast majority of scientists based in laboratories or teaching at universities, working conditions have become a nightmare.

It is striking that a number of notions that have been at the source of these changes are becoming a goal on their own. These include the implementation of the Lisbon treaty, the knowledge economy, the so-called new public management where universities have gained greater operational and financial autonomy, as well as the obsession for evaluation, excellence and ranking.

Incidentally, all of these notions have been at work in all European countries as well. Combined with the recessionary context, austerity and the TINA—there is no alternative—attitude, they have had variable consequences across Europe. In Southern European countries, including in Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy, the result has been a disaster. By contrast, in Germany and Northern European countries, in general, research effort has been maintained. France lies somewhere between these two scenarios.


Sciences en Marche

 Recruitment reduction under scrutiny

Resistance to mega-universities

The 2004 and 2009 protests

From knowledge economy to new public management

Recent shifts in organisation

Absurd policy

Loss of research autonomy

Irreconcilable differences


Sciences en Marche

The most imminent researchers’ movement, called Sciences en Marche (Sciences in Motion), is about to start, on 27th September 2014. It is a symbolic cycling rally bringing scientists from all regions towards Paris, that they expect to reach on 18th October 2014. This initiative, covered in the EuroScientist, is designed to raise French people’s awareness of scientists’ plea along the way by asking them to provide accommodation to participating scientists and by getting participants engage in popular science events as part of national science celebrations dubbed the Science en Fête, scheduled during the same period of time .

This initiative, launched in June 2014, was started by CNRS scientists working at Montpellier University and has since gained nationwide dimension. As part of their demands, the movement has adopted a three-pronged approach. First, they request the establishment of an ambitious multi-annual plan for recruitment, at all level or PRHE. Second, they want an increase in the baseline budget allocated to laboratories and universities. Finally, they also demand that PhDs gain better recognition within the French system, in order to facilitate the employment of researchers, as well as the wider adaption of scientific culture in companies and civil service.

Recruitment reduction under scrutiny

A second research activism initiative, in a similar vein, came from researchers at CNRS. It was triggered by a report of the CNRS scientific advisory board underlining that the recruitment of young scientists in all parts of public research and higher education system was getting dangerously low. More importantly, researchers started to realise that there was a major contrast between the official positions—which depicts research as a priority, with ring-fenced budgets—and the reality.

In fact, the number of opened positions has been in constant decline in the past few years. The total number of positions opened by CNRS for researchers and engineers dropped from 982 in 2009 to 684 in 2013. On the ground, young scientists tend to leave science after their PhD, or even give up their career in science. As a result, the international position of France in research is moving back, from the 7th rank twenty years ago, to the 15th rank today, according to the OECD ranking.

The publication of this CNRS report resulted in an exceptional meeting of the 1,200 members of the Comité National—a structure in charge of evaluating the activity of CNRS/university laboratories and of recruiting researchers for the CNRS—held on the 11th June 2014. It was quickly followed by a petition, which received 16,000 signatures in a few weeks, asking for a multiannual recruitment plan for scientists. The government was also asked to announce the number of permanent positions were they were planning to create in the next three to five years. The idea was to provide scientists some visibility over the actual possibilities of working in PRHE in the coming years.

Resistance to mega-universities

Prior to Sciences and Marche and the CNRS movement, another protest was initiated in May 2014. People working in higher education complained against the consolidation in the university sector, as the government plans to create mega-universities, headed by professional managers’ teams—as opposed to academics traditionally. Academics fear that the extensive power granted to the top, would reduce the ability of for people working in universities to express their choices.  The movement denounces the research policy of François Hollande’s then research and higher education minister Geneviève Fioraso, who is now State secretary in the same area. They accused such policy of being absolutely identical to that of Valérie Précresse, who was in that position under Nicolas Sarkozy.

They also blame the Socialist Party for disregarding its previous criticisms against the Pécresse-Sarkozy policy. Just before the formation of the government headed by Prime Minister Emmanuel Valls, in May 2014, a petition was launched asking for a change in PRHE policy, and therefore a change of minister. But Fioraso remained in charge of research, albeit with a lower position as state secretary instead of minister, in two successive government changes, which happened in May and August 2014.

People working in PRHE are either angry or depressed because Hollande reneged on his promises for research and higher education and is pursuing the policy applied by Sarkozy instead.

The 2004 and 2009 protests

 Let’s examine how the latest protests compare with that of 2004 and 2009. In 2003, the then president Jacques Chirac and his government wanted to impose severe cuts in the PRHE budget. It was part of a general drive to reduce public expenses. At the time, public research was considered as a domain where strong protests never take place. This was a mistake: these budget cuts and reduction of permanent positions led to the creation of research activism movement, Sauvons la Recherche (SLR), in January 2004, an informal movement of which I was the spokesman. SLR had a strong and popular action, and has probably contributed to the collapse of the majority at the regional elections in March 2004.

In the days following this defeat, the government accepted to cancel all the PRHE budget cuts and opened more than 1,000 supplementary permanent positions in PRHE. This movement was essentially a movement of researchers, mainly from CNRS.

During the 2009 movement, the involvement of researchers was weaker. It was initiated by university professors and associate professors from universities all over the country. They opposed with important changes in their status. In a nutshell, the proposed changes resulted in considering research as a reward and teaching as a punishment. Meanwhile, the reform was accompanied by downgrading of the quality of training for high schools professors. All these changes were accompanied by anti-PRHE provocations by president Sarkozy, and by his ministers. They claimed that the changes were to improve the efficiency of the system. But research activists clearly saw through this smoakescreen, as the obvious reasons were to allow budget cuts, and to better control PRHE actors.

From knowledge economy to new public management

When examined closer, the basic reasons of these three protests were quite similar. In 2000, the Lisbon treaty pushed the idea that Europe had to promote the knowledge economy. To this end, each country was given a target of 3% of its GNP to be spent on research and development—including both public and corporate investment by 2010.

Fourteen years later, we have to realise what the knowledge economy really means: that all major aspects of knowledge should be justified and controlled by the economy. The mantra says: production of knowledge through research should only be financed if its potential impact for economy can be foreseen beforehand. Transmission of knowledge in higher education should depend on a so-called knowledge market. This means a strong development of private universities, at the expense of public universities. Note that in a country like Japan, the shift is complete: public universities no longer exist.

In addition, programs in public universities should now be influenced by corporate demands. And the model of corporate management is systematically extended to universities—dubbed new public management. Thus, the Lisbon treaty has been the signal for deep changes in the organisation of PRHE, in France as well as in the other European countries.

However, the European suggestion of largely increasing the national budgets for PRHE has been totally ignored in most countries. In France, the global public and corporate R&D investment was maintained around 2.2% of GNP, from 2000 to 2012. The investment for public research—excluding military, nuclear or aerospatial budgets—is at present at 0.7% of GNP in France. This compares with 1 % in Germany and 1.1 % in Sweden. The latter also boasts a 3.4% of GNP investment in both public and corporate sectors, which is 50% higher than in France.

Recent shifts in organisation

Since 2000, and in particular since 2005, there has been a series of changes in the organisation of PRHE in France. The major steps are the creation in 2005 of the national research agency ANR (Agence Nationale de la Recherche). Its role is to fund research, by allowing a better government control of the very specific and narrow research fields deserving national grants. The creation in 2007 of a national evaluation agency AERES came in addition to the existing evaluation systems. Again, this was aimed at better centralised controlling of French research activity.

In addition, changes in the organisation of universities gave an excessive power  to their presidents in 2007, and to the presidents of the mega-universities formed by the fusion of several universities in 2013-2014. These series of fusions aimed to increase centralisation of power, in the logic of the new public management approach. Ultimately, the move was triggered by the absurd hope that mega-universities would get higher in the Shanghai ranking of world universities, even if the reality of their functioning was by no means improved. The university fusion programme was also designed as a cost cutting exercise. But what really happened so far has been a cost increase due the creation of new superstructures added on top of the existing ones. As a result, there are more administrative employees for the same number of professors, engineers and technicians; a reality reminiscent of the tale of the ant and the lion.

Absurd policy

A majority of actors of in the field fail to see any logic in this avalanche of reforms. The incessant addition of structural layers results in what is referred to as a millefeuille structure; based on the famous eponymous French delicacy, a cream and puff pastry cake with multiple strata. In fact, there is a logic in all of this: these changes progressively lead to the complete loss of autonomy of scientists. Researchers have less and less possibility of performing investigator-driven research.

In order to get money for their research, scientists have to fit in the ever-changing, very narrow and short-term research programs decided by the Ministry of Research. For instance, today, one can no longer get a grant for trying to understand unknown aspects of the functioning of the brain. You have to work on a neurological disease. But not any type. One would have thought that Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis could attract funding. But that’s not the case only Alzheimer’s research is eligible.

This sort of absurd decision that kills creativity is a monstrous child born from the union of liberalism—whereby everything, including research, has to be profitable—and French Jacobinism—as everything has to be centralised, and decided by the government, its administration and its experts and/or lobbies.

Loss of research autonomy

In the wake of the Lisbon treaty, policies developed on a large scale by the Sarkozy-Pécresse tandem—and now pursued by the Hollande-Fioraso team—reforms of the PRHE aim at eliminating what they see as one key defect of the system: its autonomy.

Everybody agrees that CNRS has been and still is a successful organisation. Part of its success is that it has been very attractive to European researchers. In the past years, 30% of the researchers getting a CNRS position were not French, and many of those were from other European countries. A reason for its attractiveness was the freedom for research. Some years ago, a good lab could get a large fraction of its money from a funding given on a regular basis by CNRS; the amount was re-evaluated every 4 years. This gave researchers a real autonomy.

This autonomy has been considered as a serious problem by Sarkozy and Hollande, who seem to ignore that this autonomy is a condition for creativity. Thus, autonomy has been fought in many ways: less and less funding is provided on a recurrent basis, on an annual basis and most of the grants are now allocated to short-term projects. Indeed, any scientists from the most junior to Nobel laureates still have to prove to the experts at the Ministry that their next project is relevant to the current research priorities.

In addition, the system of evaluation and control of the research activity has become overwhelmingly heavy. There have been penalties imposed by AERES for those who did not publish in high-impact journal every year. As a result, this approach has been a way of reducing the autonomy of researchers and the likelihood that they will focus on risky topics. In addition, the explosion of job insecurity—as the number of researchers in a precarious position has increased in line with the number of short term contracts awarded. Researcher have been applying to such contracts in the hope of, one day, having a permanent position.

Irreconcilable differences

Today, we are faced with two opposing positions.  On the one hand, the liberal vision of the knowledge economy, for which the autonomy of researchers is a problem, and job insecurity a solution. On the other hand, the vision of those who claim that knowledge is not merchandise, autonomy is essential for creativity, and the long time necessary for ambitious research is not compatible with short term, precarious type of contracts and employment.

We still ignore how far the 2014 protest will go.

Many people working in PRHE are exhausted, disgusted, and think of leaving research. They often say that they started doing research because they dreamt of having the freedom necessary for exploring new routes. Others wanted to find the key to mysteries, to work in teams with colleagues. None of them knew that doing research now means being under constant pressure, having to adapt to ever-changing reforms, structures and programs, spending less time doing research than filling forms, writing grant applications, preparing the new evaluation or being asked to evaluate colleagues.

French public life has its own ever changing climate. It has traditionally constituted of periods of calm—almost of depression—followed by periods of anger and protest. For scientists, protest arises when working conditions become too difficult, and when the sentiment of the absurdity of the situation becomes too strong. We are currently in a depressed period. However, the government appears so deaf to reasonable criticisms and proposals for change from the research and higher education community that such apathy could soon trigger some explosive response.

Alain Trautmann

CNRS researcher in immunology, Cochin Institute, Paris

 Go back to the Research Activism special issue.

Photo credit : Louise Oligny

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