'Ants' turn on their masters

March 29, 1996

At least three quarters of the laboratory directors at two of France's main public research organisations have launched an unprecedented campaign of protest against budget cuts and lack of job prospects for young scientists.

More than 1,000 research heads at the national science research centre, CNRS, and 170 of the 240 research unit directors at the medical institute INSERM have signed a text protesting over cutbacks and criticising management methods.

CNRS directors are incensed at comments by Francois d'Aubert, research minister, who said that "if some of them felt they had been given rough treatment they had only themselves to blame".

Echoing this suggestion of wastefulness, Guy Aubert, CNRS director, has stated that some laboratory heads are "ants" and others "grasshoppers". Such allegations drew a stinging public response from Nobel scientist Jean-Marie Lehn who called for a "more serious debate on the place of education and research in our society".

The CNRS has reclaimed all unspent 1995 money whatever the programme spending plans and, because the CNRS computer is incapable of transferring less than one franc, some units have received just one additional franc in basic funding for 1996. Both the CNRS and INSERM units have had some 25 per cent of their 1996 budget frozen.

Neuroscientist Marc Peschanski said: "We have not been upset by our management like our CNRS counterparts but there has never been a reaction like this before."

INSERM directors are even more anxious about the future of the young PhD researchers in their units. New posts have dropped by over half the usual annual rate to just 36 this year. "It takes six years to prepare one of our top-level young researchers. By the time they apply, they have post-doctoral qualifications, experience abroad or a double medical and scientific PhD," Dr Peschanski said.

Over-30s who have applied unsuccessfully three times for a permanent post are disqualified from reapplying. "They are a sacrificed generation," he argued.

The protesting research directors say the ball is now in the government's court. At the end of March, the freeze on part of the 1996 budget should either be confirmed or cancelled. Some directors are suggesting resignation en masse. Others say this will leave the research community without leadership at a time of crisis.

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