French plug skills gap

November 2, 2001

Jane Marshall reports on how a potential exodus is being used to rejuvenate scientific research.

France is to create 1,000 public research posts in the next three years in a bid to stave off an impending skills shortage. As part of a ten-year plan that concerns 45,000 workers in public research, staff are being employed to avoid mass hirings of potentially low-quality recruits in the future, especially from 2005 onwards when retirements will start to peak.

Nine bodies are involved, including the multidisciplinary National Council for Scientific Research, Inserm (health and medicine), Inra (agronomy) and Inria (information and communications technology).

Presenting the programme last week, research minister Roger-Gerard Schwartzenberg said there were five objectives: n Anticipate the mass exodus of researchers due to retire between 2005 and 2010

* Rejuvenate the workforce

* Increase numbers working in priority research fields

* Strengthen public research

* Encourage researcher mobility.

Nearly 40 per cent of today's scientific population will need to be replaced in the next decade because of retirement and other reasons, with some disciplines, including physics and chemistry, losing half their staff.

Creating 1,000 posts by 2004 - half of them for researchers, half for support staff such as engineers, technicians and administrators - will allow the research sector to renew itself smoothly, with no "concertina effects", Mr Schwartzenberg says.

Under a deal with the finance ministry, however, a fifth of the new posts will be relinquished between 2006 and 2010, resulting in a net gain of 800 at the end of the decade.

The average age of researchers is 46, and Mr Schwartzenberg sees the imminent wave of departures as a chance to rejuvenate the workforce.

Lack of tenured posts and blocked promotion opportunities have discouraged PhDs or restricted them to insecure, short-term contracts. Others have moved abroad, and the minister is anxious to attract them back. "It is not the vocation of France to serve as a training institute for young doctors on behalf of other countries," he says.

The programme concentrates on three major research priorities: life sciences, information and communications technologies and the environment.

The extra posts are meant to help restore France's research capacity, which lags behind international competitors. The French scientific community grew by 1.22 per cent between 1995 and 1999, when research employed 6.14 per 1,000 of the working population. In the European Union as a whole, numbers of researchers rose by 2.89 per cent and represented 5.28 of every 1,000 workers. In the United States, research registered 6.21 per cent growth and accounted for 8.08 in 1,000 workers.

The programme, which dovetails with the education ministry's higher education plans, also aims to encourage researcher mobility, "offering research staff the opportunity to diversify their activities and enrich their skills", Mr Schwartzenberg says. Public research bodies, the universities and other institutions could then vary their sources of recruitment and manage human resources more efficiently, he added.

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