French research puts accent on wealth creation

October 18, 1996

France's public research funding will be channelled towards wealth-creating sectors under plans set out this month.

But angry researchers are calling this a way of "transferring public funds to the private sector". An inter-ministerial research committee first set up by General de Gaulle and inactive since 1982 was convened to launch the resolutely "money-making" funding policy.

Under the scheme, public research bodies will have to devote 10 per cent of their research budget next year and 20 per cent thereafter to seven priority areas: the food industry; transport; the information technology industry; formula chemistry; medical research; the environment and new products.

Four "federating" research programmes are to get specific funding ranging from FFr 400 million (Pounds 50 million) to FFr 5 billion over five years: for industry-based research and development of chemistry applications for new industrial techniques; health; environment and food biotechnology; microbiology with a specific emphasis on Aids and a public gene-sequencing centre.

Education minister Francois Bayrou said: "The centre will be France's first public genome mapping facility. Areas crucial for the economic future of our country have been chosen." His secretary of state for research Francois d'Aubert insisted that "the government wants to get more out of the resources invested in research but not to the detriment of basic research".

Charles-Henri Audier, head of a chemistry laboratory and a governor of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, said: "I have never seen such a scandalous project. The public money, which will fund a narrowly utilitarian chemistry programme without any scientific ambition, will be as much as the entire funds going to all CNRS and university chemistry laboratories in France."

According to Audier, the earmarking of funds within a shrinking budget means he and other laboratory directors will have to tender for projects within the "federating programmes" if they wish to stay open.

"Formula chemistry just involves the final details of product formulation. It is for industry to work out whether to put vitamin C in their aspirin, not public research bodies," he said. The inter-ministerial committee insists that this area corresponds to "a strong industrial demand" and points out that "a dozen of the top 100 key technologies are based on formula chemistry".

Wealth creation will also reach the researchers, according to the government, which has issued a decree enabling public sector scientists to keep a stake in their discoveries. Jacques Fossey, general secretary of research union, SNCS, warned the plan would "put a brake on basic research".

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