Resistance to research reforms in France: a historical perspective

Before his election, candidate François Hollande maintained that intellectuals—and scientists in particular—should participate in stimulating the general dynamics of the country. He also stated research labs should be considered as the main ‘brick’ of the research system. He recognised that the country’s research system needed to open up. After his election in May 2012, the French president mandated the Higher Education and Research Minister, Geneviève Fioraso, to initiate the promised reform process. She launched a national consultation—dubbed the Assises nationales de la recherche et de l’enseignement supérieur—in the summer and autumn of 2012, as a starting point to help draft a new law.

It might come as a surprise that the system should need reforms. Particularly after the series of changes, which was implemented between 2002 and 2012, by the previous conservative governments. These consisted in providing financial and operational autonomy to French universities. Ideological differences are not the only explanation to justify the need for additional reforms. Understanding why the French higher education and research (HER) system is so unstable and so different from other European countries, requires going back a long way in history.

The European universities in the XIIIth and XIVth centuries were, on the whole, similar. However, major differences emerged in the XVIth century. In 1525, King Francis I of France created the Collège Royal —now the Collège de France—thus giving an opportunity for Renaissance ideas to thrive. This development was directly in opposition to the way the conservative and Church-dominated Sorbonne University evolved.

Later, the XVIIth century saw the emergence of specialised engineering schools, such as, notably, Polytechnique, which was established before and during the French Revolution. These schools were designed to train the technical, scientific and military managers the country needed. Jumping forward to the XXth century, another significant development took place when the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) was created in 1939. It was initially designed to organise heavy experimental research that the universities were not able to support.

As a consequence of its long evolution, the French HER system is divided in three parts. First, the engineering and business schools, which are usually small and with little or no research activities, focus on training managers and engineers. Second, the CNRS and other research organisations act both as funding agencies and research organisations. Finally, the universities are caught between the engineering schools and the research institutions, with little aura. And they have a much smaller role than those in most other EU countries.

In the context of this tripartite HER system, any attempt to reduce the country’s research capabilities has been strongly resisted. For example, the emergence of a researchers’ movement in 2004 resulted from the drastic cuts in research and higher education jobs and in funding, imposed by the then government of président Chirac.

These cuts gave rise to a massive grassroots movement in the research community, involving PhD students, junior and senior researchers, and prominent members of the French Science Academy. It blossomed under the informal, albeit strong, leadership of the scientists’ activist association Sauvons la recherche. This strong resistance forced the government to reverse the cuts, restore the lost jobs and add some new academic positions. It also led to the creation of a new research funding agency (ANR), an evaluation agency (AERES), and to the establishment of various consortia of university and research groups.

As a consequence of this U-turn, innovation, which had become part of science policy in the 1970’s, was further encouraged. New structures in charge of patents and cooperation between labs and industry emerged. The government started a new tax credit system, dubbed ‘crédit impôt-recherche,’ to support R&D in companies, with a total budget of over €5 billion per year.

Following his presidential victory in 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy and his government continued the reforms of the higher education and research system. They gave more autonomy to universities and more power to their presidents. They also initiated ‘networks of excellence’ both at research labs and university campuses levels. Although one of the purposes of the reforms had been to simplify the system, they ended up reinforcing recently added layers of institutions such as AERES and ANR.

There is no doubt that previous reforms have had a substantial impact on the research landscape of France. It is difficult to say, at this stage, whether the net effect was to destabilise a system whose strong points have been weakened or to instil a new dynamics capable of turning French universities into first-class international institutions.

There is no doubt that the increasingly complex funding system is subjecting scientists to a new time-consuming bureaucracy. Opportunities to finance research projects range from regional funding schemes to EU FP7 and Horizon 2020 competitive funding tenders. As a result, scientists are spending up to 50% of their time applying for future grants or reporting on past grants. This may not be the best value for their time and investment.

Thus, evaluating the reforms of the past ten years may require taking into consideration that the current complex research funding system itself reflects the globalisation of research, the nature of the innovation processes, and the need of society to be involved in some fields in decisions concerning research activity.

Some of these issues are being discussed, as part of the process to draft a new law reforming the HER system in France, tabled for discussion in Parliament during the month of May 2013. Even among supporters of the present parliamentary majority, there is little consensus on the priorities for the future. Will the government be able to balance the demands of students, the push for ‘excellence’, the ever changing landscape of modern research? We will try to answer these questions in a forthcoming second part of this series on the latest development in French research.

Jean-Pierre Alix, Adviser to CNRS General Director for Science and Member of the Governing Board of EuroScience

Martin Andler, Professor of Mathematics at the Versailles Saint-Quentin University and Vice-President of EuroScience

Featured image credit: © MESR/XR PICTURES

Featured illustration caption: Higher Education and Research Minister Geneviève Fioraso and Nobel Laureate Françoise Barré-Sinoussi at the launch of the steering committee of the national consultation on research and higher education reform, in July 2012.

Jean-Pierre Alix

Governing Board member at EuroScience
Jean-Pierre Alix participates in the RRI Tools project.
Jean-Pierre Alix

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