At the centre of revolution in research

April 14, 2000

After three years at the head of France's premier research institution, Catherine Brechignac sees profound changes taking place.

The National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) is regarded by some as the jewel in the crown of French research and by others as a fossilised and bureaucratic institution. Now beginning its seventh decade, the CNRS is facing fundamental reform.

Catherine Brechignac, the centre's first female director-general, has the task of modernising France's biggest research institutution. She is in charge of more than 25,000 employees, including nearly 12,000 researchers, and a budget of E2.42 billion (Pounds 1.46 billion). The CNRS, which was set up at the outbreak of the second world war, is active in all major research fields at home. It also has an international presence through partnerships and cooperation.

Brechignac was appointed by Claude All gre nearly three years ago - "because I was a woman", she believes. But that explanation alone is too modest; although the former research minister did make a point of promoting women, Brechignac, 53, a physicist by training, has a formidable reputation for determination, decisiveness and an aptitude for analysing and clarifying complex matters.

At the time, the new Jospin government was setting out its aims for modernisation: to remove the structural and psychological barriers separating the big research organisations such as the CNRS from the universities and industry; to inject new blood by attracting young researchers; and to encourage older researchers to apply for transfer to teaching posts. A new innovation law would make it possible for state-employed scientists to commercialise their inventions in their own companies.

When Brechignac took over, her brief was to rejuvenate and streamline the CNRS - a daunting task considering the size of the organisation and the resistance to change among much of the staff, who enjoy civil-servant status and an iron tradition of lifelong job security.

Brechignac admits that there has been resistance to radical reform, but she insists that profound transformations are taking place. "If you make brutal changes to the structure, there is bound to be a negative reaction. Researchers are independent and have to discover things for themselves; they must be given time." She favours a "bottom-up, evolutionary" approach "because you can't carry out structural reform without the cooperation of the personnel".

After slow but steady progress, Brechignac claims there is an "altered mentality" in the French system, and the CNRS is adapting to the government's wishes. "Researchers, engineers and technicians are motivated to advance in new directions - towards industry and multiple partnerships, towards the regions and the socio-economic world." The attitude is completely different from ten years ago, she says.

The CNRS has struck agreements with big industrial groups such as Snecma, Rhone-Poulenc and Saint-Gobain. One of its latest commitments is as a major partner in the new high-tech Optics Valley association based at Saclay, south of Paris, which brings together universities, public and private research laboratories and industries including Alcatel and Thomson-CSF.

Links with universities have improved, Brechignac says. The CNRS used to have its own laboratories and merely associate with the universities, but it now has contracts to work together in mixed laboratories. Eighty-five per cent of the centre's 1,245 research units are located in universities.

The CNRS adopted a pro-youth policy eight years ago, and attitudes in the organisation are changing as more young researchers join. "In the labs, the young make things move, and the older ones follow like parents evolving with their children." It is clear that the young are those who will take the opportunities to form their own enterprises, Brechignac says.

This generation is also more mobile than its predecessors. "Sixty per cent of young people who do their thesis in a lab will leave that lab after their degree, or do a postdoctoral elsewhere; 20 per cent will leave and come back later; and only 18 per cent stay in the same place."

Another break with the past is the reversal of the inward-looking, ivory-tower mentality to one of public accessibility. "The CNRS used to be closed, but now it is open - it is on the internet," Brechignac says. One new initiative is a series of public exhibitions and debates, Oser le savoir, being held until December at the Cite des Sciences et de l'Industrie in northern Paris, which explores a different scientific theme each month.

With a state budget that is stagnant in real terms, and of which 70 per cent goes on salaries, Brechnignac must balance her books carefully, and she refers wistfully to the research budgets of the United States and Canada. The CNRS increasingly generates extra income itself, for example through industrial, public services or European contracts.

Now the centre is pushing for more independence, proposing a new statute that would give it autonomy over budget, senior appointments and general policy without intervention from the ministry for education and research. This is one of the first decisions for the new minister, Roger-Gerard Schwarzenberg.

Despite her considerable responsibilities, Brechignac is in no danger of becoming remote from colleagues and developments in her field. She still carries out research on atomic clusters regularly - a exceptional practice for directors-general of the centre. She spends Monday to Thursday at the CNRS, and Fridays and Saturdays in her lab.

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