French not sure how to act in crisis

July 30, 2004

The UK is not alone in trying to find the best way to fund and carry out research. The Times Higher looks at how other countries are tackling the problem.

The French Government, university presidents, unions, scientists, tenured and contract researchers and academics agree there is a crisis in how research is funded and carried out and that reform is vital, but they have differing ideas on how to go about this.

Ministers have no plans to dismantle a system that devotes four-fifths of funding to specialist public research organisations compared with only 5 per cent for universities. But university research could receive more under legislation due to be presented this year to Parliament.

By far the biggest of the 30 or so public organisations is the multidisciplinary CNRS (National Centre for Scientific Research), followed by the agronomic research institute Inra and medical research institute Inserm. Others include the CEA (atomic energy), Ifremer (marine exploitation), INRP (education) and foundations such as the Curie and Pasteur institutes. Most research staff and academics have civil-servant status and are divided between researchers who work for public organisations, and enseignants-chercheurs , who combine teaching and research in higher education institutions.

Research organisations and universities collaborate through contracts, and most public laboratories are accommodated in or jointly run with universities. Between 60 and 70 per cent of organisations' lab directors are also university professors.

The elite Academy of Sciences says the system has "distinct advantages. It is fed by a flow of high-quality science students." But it admits weaknesses, including no clear scientific policy in the ministries responsible for research services and establishments and lack of coordination between universities and research bodies.

There is also an "almost total absence" of geographical mobility and mobility between fields.

The debate on how best to resolve these issues includes a committee headed by the Academy's chairman and his deputy, the Conference of University Presidents, and researchers and academics represented by unions and campaign group Sauvons la Recherche, which organised a petition and lab directors' administration boycott this year until the Government restored cut posts.

The new law is expected to give universities a bigger research role, possibly merging the posts of researcher and enseignant-chercheur to encourage flexibility.

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