A draft law that is about to go before the French parliament will allow public sector researchers to start up their own companies, hold stock or become consultants in firms using their research applications.
Until now, any involvement in marketing their findings has jeopardised the quasi-civil servant status of French researchers, forcing them to make an irrevocable choice between laboratory and business.
The new measures, described by the French government as strongly inspired by the situation in the United States, will "allow researchers to take part in business projects without compromising their scientific career or running the risk of a conflict of interests", said secretary of state for research, Francois d'Aubert.
Researchers wanting to start up a firm will be offered a four-year "temporary transition period". At first, they will remain on full salary and gradually shift to self-employment as the company takes off, with a guaranteed option of returning to their former public sector job. A committee set up within the research institution will oversee the transition and ensure a professional code of conduct is respected. The same body will supervise paid consultancy work carried out by researchers for firms using their research applications. Researchers will be able to hold up to 10 per cent of the stock of such firms.
The supervisory body will ensure "the public interest is preserved and that the researcher is not in a personal situation creating a conflict of interests", Mr D'Aubert said. He also promised to set up advisory units within research institutes or universities on start-up companies for scientists unsure of their business skills. The new measures concern the 60 per cent of public sector researchers who are employed full-time in research institutes rather than universities and who have no teaching duties.
The current rate of business creation by researchers averages 40 firms a year. Some 400 firms have been founded since the mid-1980s and only 16 per cent had disappeared after six years, compared to one in two in the industrial and service sectors.
"Experience shows that companies started by researchers are longer-lasting and create more jobs than the average, which shows our scientists have entrepreneurial talents," Mr D'Aubert said.
France's public research institutes have only gradually developed links with business and industry.
The largest body, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, went from 350 contracts with industry in 1980 to 3,800 contracts in 1994.