Sciences en marche: 3 weeks of rally across France for a real change in French science policy

Decades of sort-sighted politics have taken a huge toll on the French system of Higher Education and Research (HER). According to OECD, France was 7th in the world in 1995 for its research effort compared to its GNP, and 15th in 2011. In 2011, France was also 14th for the ratio researchers/population. Despite the international treaties and the promise to invest 3% of GNP in research and development, France still stagnates at 2.2% when Germany now reaches 3% and Sweden is close to 4%.

Not surprisingly, the French public HER system is now facing major difficulties. In the universities, professors, already traditionally overloaded with teaching responsibilities, are now also overwhelmed by administrative tasks and technical duties that they must face due to the lack of support staff. In research laboratories, lack of funding has transformed the lives of many scientists into a perpetual grant hunting fight that under generalized penury leads to a tremendous waste of energy and money. It also leaves an increasingly larger number of labs without any funding, causing much frustration within the community. In parallel, the number of new permanent HER positions for staff scientists and support staff has been strongly reduced, while the number of short term contracts exploded. As a consequence, thousands of highly trained young researchers and senior technicians have no future in public science, and form a genuine “sacrificed generation”. To make things worse, unlike in most developed countries, PhD graduates are not considered in France to belong to the intellectual, political and economical elite of the country. It is thus difficult for them to find high-profile employments in either industry or administration.

The “Sciences en marche” initiative was launched to raise alarm and call for measures to avoid a general collapse of the French HER system. Our diagnostic is two fold: first, French governments should realize that bold statements about science being a priority for the future are useless in the absence of a clear long term strategy and of pragmatic initiatives to move towards the goal of 3% GNP in science investment signed years ago; second, and more importantly, the actual decline of our public system is not due to the fact that France is too poor to maintain high ambitions for public higher education and research. It is due to the waste of a large part of the public spending in research into inefficient attempts to boost private industrial research. Indeed, France spends annually a staggering 6 billion Euros in tax incentives in vain attempts to boost private investment in research. This so-called “Crédit Impôt Recherche” (tax credit on research, or CIR) is insufficiently controlled and lacks a rigorous framework. As a result, numerous official reports highlight that a substantial part of the CIR is at best of limited efficiency. It is in particular used by large companies for fiscal optimization rather than for scientific investment.

Based on this assessment, “Science en marche” has three main proposals: 1) we demand an ambitious 10-year plan for hiring young scientists: our estimation is that the French HER system needs 5000 new positions/year for the next two years, followed by an average of 3000 new positions per year for the next 8 years. These positions should come on top of the replacement of retiring scientists. A third of these positions will be for staff scientists, two thirds for support staff; 2) We consider absolutely necessary to raise the operational budget of research organizations and universities, which in many cases has fallen below 10% of their overall budget, precluding any scientific policy or even the mere maintenance of buildings. ; 3) We ask the government to take rapid measures to promote the official recognition of the PhD in the industry as well as for high-level positions in the French administration.

These demands are highly consensual among the academic community and we believe that their cost can be met without interference with other national priorities by re-allocating to the public HER system the ≈2 billion Euros of the CIR estimated to have no effect on the research effort of the private sector.

Olivier Coux

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