Cloudy thinking on blue skies

September 9, 2005

French scientists fear a sharp focus on industry will blur the big picture, writes Stephane Perissutti

As UK universities prepare for the 2008 research assessment exercise, the French Government is introducing measures that could transform research.

Just as the UK Government seeks to improve links between universities and business, so the French Government prioritises programmes with an industrial dimension.

There are real problems with this approach. French scientists - particularly those working at the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), the largest European organisation for basic research - are uneasy.

They fear a loss of autonomy. Researchers are far from reassured by forthcoming legislation, even though it should make official the creation of 3,000 posts a year from 2006 and a budget increase of €6 billion (£4.1 billion) between 2005 and 2007.

The measures are designed to push applied research, and in July 67 pôles de compétitivité (competitiveness centres) were created. The thinking behind these regional coalitions of business, universities and research organisations is that they will showcase research to attract investors. The poles must be placed in the context of Framework Six, the European research funding round in force until the end of 2006, which defines priority research areas. These are: biotechnologies, computer science, nanotechnology, aeronautics, food safety and nuclear energy. A €20 billion budget will support "integrated projects entailing a critical mass of scientific and industrial partners". Admirable though this sounds, the danger is that by pushing applied research, basic, or blue-skies, research will suffer. And this research is essential for future technologies.

Another worry is the partial transfer of control over research to the autonomous Agence Nationale pour la Recherche (ANR), set up in February.

Under the direction of heads of public research, Government and major industries, and with an initial €350 million budget, the ANR will finance about 30 research projects this year. Researchers could find themselves spending huge amounts of time compiling administrative documents for funding from the ANR.

These changes are part of a strategy defined at the 2000 European summit in Lisbon. The European Union then fixed a target of increasing its research effort to the level of the US and Japan by devoting 3 per cent of gross domestic product to research by 2010 (of which 2 per cent would be contributed by private industry). But French industry is not interested.

Between 2002 and 2003, investment in research fell from 2.26 per cent to 2.19 per cent of GDP. The contribution from companies fell by 4.2 per cent, while the Government's research and development investment remained stable.

Nobody is arguing with the Government's attempt to relaunch private investment in research, but there is a danger that public research could be neglected because industrialists, banks and private investors consider it risky.

Remember that although the aim of basic research is to extend the field of human knowledge without any practical use being guaranteed, eventually its results do find industrial outlets. The progress that nanotechnologies made in the 1980s was linked to the theoretical work begun by Albert Fert in the 1970s, which allowed him to discover giant magneto-resistance in 1988. He says: "The first lesson I learnt from this experience was that very often technological progress has roots deep in basic research."

Stéphane Perissutti is a French journalist specialising in science and research.

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