French universities and research ‘endangered’ by €900 million cut

Rectors question how Macron can live up to promise to end underfunding of science

February 27, 2024
Entrance to the building housing the French Ministry of Economy and Finance
Source: iStock/HJBC

French sector leaders have decried government cuts to the country’s research and higher education budget, warning that universities are contending with “chronic underfunding” while France experiences a “decline in international research”.

Earlier this month finance minister Bruno Le Maire announced a €10 billion (£8.6 billion) reduction to France’s overall budget for 2024, a response to revised forecasts that predict the French economy will grow by only 1 per cent this year, rather than the 1.4 per cent growth previously anticipated.

A decree signed by Mr Le Maire, prime minister Gabriel Attal and public accounts minister Thomas Cazenave on 22 February confirmed a €904 million cut to the research and higher education budget. Included in the reduction is a €383 million cut to funding for national research agencies, such as the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), while higher education and university research will be cut by €80 million and funding for student life will decrease by €125 million.

In a statement published online, the umbrella group France Universités expressed “deep concern” over the revised budget, noting that French institutions were already facing “constantly increasing expenses”. Financial constraints “endanger[ed] their missions and their functioning”, the statement said.

The rectors’ conference went on to observe “a risk of incoherence in public policies”, asking, “How can we compensate for France’s decline in international research?” Investing in “education, research, innovation and youth” was a “political choice”, the statement concluded.

In December, president Emmanuel Macron announced sweeping reforms to the French research system, which would see the country’s national research institutes transformed into “programme agencies” responsible for dedicated research areas relating to “the major challenges of our time”.

Speaking at the Élysée Palace, Mr Macron lamented France’s “chronic underinvestment” in research, observing that in 2017, when he took office, researchers’ salaries fell significantly below the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average while funding rates were low. His government had committed “real public resources” in order to “reverse the underlying trend”, he said.

Pointing to Mr Macron’s speech, Boris Gralak, general secretary of the National Union of Scientific Research (SNCS-FSU), told Nature that the latest budget cuts were a “total contradiction” and meant France was “still further away from achieving its goal of raising public research spending to 1 per cent of GDP from less than 0.75 per cent”.

“It is incomprehensible and unacceptable,” Dr Gralak said.

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