Calls for new blood in ancient academie

February 4, 2000


The Academie des Sciences - an elite and historic institution with a membership including the most eminent, if not the youngest, scientists of France - last week presented guidelines for politicians to achieve a "harmonious development of society" in the 21st century, while facing up to the need for its own reform.

Critics have accused the academy of being opposed to change, too elderly, too Paris-based and not representative of French


It is nearly 25 years since any reforms were last introduced. When he took over as president a year ago, chemist Guy Ourissan, emeritus professor at Louis-Pasteur University in Strasbourg, and his vice-president, former minister Hubert Curien, who will replace him in 2001, left no doubt that they believe it is time for evolution and rejuvenation.

Founded by Colbert in 1666 during the reign of Louis XIV, the academy is six years younger than its British equivalent, the Royal Society. Together with four others - among them the Academie Francaise, guardian of the French language - it is part of the Institut de France, which oversees the nation's heritage in science, the arts and literature.

Its 144 members (including five women, the first of whom was admitted in 1979), take precedence over 206 "correspondents", who are each waiting to become members - a promotion that usually occurs when death provides a vacancy. There are also 107 foreign associates. In contrast, the Royal Society has some 1,200 fellows plus 100 foreign members, and the United States' National Academy of Sciences has about 1,800 members.

Suggestions for modernising the academy include appointing more members, preferably younger researchers at the peak of their careers. One way to achieve this would be to abolish the distinction between members and correspondents, though increased numbers of younger members who have the heaviest workloads would mean forsaking the academicians' intimate weekly meetings held at the 17th- century riverside headquarters on Paris's Left Bank, in favour of less frequent but more businesslike gatherings.

The academy has just reported on its commission to guide politicians into the 21st century. Committee 2000's conclusions include: making the internet a truly public service; promoting environmental awareness and action; in health, concentrating on life expectancy, preventive medicine and emergent infectious diseases; and researching the neurosciences, developmental biology or embryology, and biodiversity.

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