Lost science jobs lead to standstill

January 20, 1995

The appointment of France's first scientific council, the Comite d'Orientation Strategique, to advise the government directly on research policy, was marked by 24-hour closures at four major universities in protest against the loss of staff posts.

The presidents of three Paris universities, VI, VII and XI, and Grenoble III university took the measure after Francois Fillon, minister for higher education and research, turned down a request for a meeting.

They are demanding the cancellation of the transfer of staff posts away from the leading research universities to new ones, which they describe as "sharing penury", urgent measures to boost resources and a national debate on higher education.

A national demonstration has been called by student and academic unions for next month to defend higher education and research.

The 15-member council is headed by scientist and industrialist Pierre Faurre, director of SAGEM, an electronics company specialising in defence equipment.

The creation of the new body was fiercely opposed by researchers at the various national public research organisations, who fear that it will undermine their institutions' autonomy.

There is also opposition to other government moves, including a planned shake-up of the biggest public research organisation, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.

Defending the creation of the council, Mr Fillon said: "One cannot have an ambitious research policy and deny the state any role in steering that policy and defining priorities.

"In any case, the state does formulate research policy, whether through its budget options or in a more dynamic way -- no one can deny it is the responsibility of the government to make choices," he added.

During the first half of 1994, the ministry conducted a "national consultation" on research, during which scientists' unions campaigned against the plan for the new council.

They argue that the research organisation's own scientific councils, which are elected by staff, should remain the main forum for deciding research policy. The ministry insists that the new body will focus on long-term strategy and not interfere with the detail of research programmes.

Only four members of the council come from industry; the others are specialists drawn from the full range of academic disciplines.

Noting that the proportion of industrialists was much lower than in the British or German scientific councils, Mr Fillon explained that French attitudes were such that parity between business and scientific interests would "be seen as less legitimate".

The council will publish an annual report evaluating research and advise the government on specific issues. Mr Fillon wants it to come up with ideas for ensuring that changes can really be implemented. "For years governments have been trying to make changes with only limited results," he said.

The new body is to look at ways to increase the amount of research carried out in the public and private sectors and turn the national research budget into an instrument of government policy, rather than an "accountancy exercise".

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