Macron sets ambitious timeline to transform French research

President wants to turn national research institutes into ‘programme agencies’ and give universities more autonomy, but experts question how effectively the plans can be implemented

December 19, 2023
 Knights of the round table in  France, Vendee, Les Epesses, Parc du Puy du Fou to illustrate Macron sets ambitious timeline to transform French research
Source: Alamy

Emmanuel Macron’s sweeping plans to transform the French research system seem promising but require clarity, sector leaders said.

The reforms draw on proposals made by the academic Philippe Gillet at the request of the higher education minister, Sylvie Retailleau, which were published in June. Speaking at the Élysée Palace, Mr Macron announced the transformation of France’s national research institutes into “programme agencies”. Each agency will be responsible for the organisation and strategy of a particular research area relating to “the major challenges of our time”, the French president said.

Giving examples of the reformed bodies’ responsibilities, Mr Macron said France’s main research agency, the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), will guide research on climate, biodiversity and sustainable societies, while the Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) will manage carbon-free energy research and the National Institute for Research in Digital Science and Technology will cover digital software.

The president also pledged to grant universities more autonomy, calling on them to become “leaders” in “organising and managing scientific research in their territory” and enabling them to steer university-level research groups.

Lamenting the “fragmentation” of France’s hybrid research system, which comprises national research institutes, universities and grandes écoles, Mr Macron said coordination among the institutions was often inadequate. The “disorderly” system inhibited the country’s emergency response, he said – noting France’s failure to produce a successful Covid vaccine – and made it less attractive on the global stage.

Critics have long called for changes to the dual research system, which sees university academics and state researchers working together in the same institutes, often employed under different terms or conditions and reliant on multiple funding streams.

Mr Macron also announced the establishment of a Presidential Science Council comprising 12 leading scientists working across a range of disciplines, among them two Nobel prizewinners, physicist Alain Aspect and economist Jean Tirole.

The president said the process by which researchers apply for funding would be simplified, with grant decisions completed in six months and teams funded for longer periods of time. Overall, Mr Macron said, the changes to the research system would be made within 18 months.

In a statement, the umbrella body France Universités said it “welcomes these announcements, which are consistent with renewed confidence in universities, and is now working on their realisation, in conjunction with its partners”.

John Ludden, former director of research in earth sciences at CNRS in Paris, told Times Higher Education that he would “gladly see the sorts of changes that Macron is proposing come to fruition”, but added: “They seem to be pushing a lot through in 18 months.”

Enabling universities to control their own research teams, while redirecting national research institutes towards coordination and strategy, could require giving them additional support. “Universities will need to develop the capacity to create and run these research groups,” Professor Ludden said. “They haven’t done it in the past because research teams are usually formed by institutes like the CNRS.”

Plans to speed up the grant process, he added, were ambitious: “Six months is tight.”

Patrick Lemaire, president of the Collège des Sociétés Savantes Académiques de France, an association of learned societies, was more sceptical. “The announced measures are very ideological and often too ambiguous to say much about them,” he said. “The universities are under such a financial stress that I can’t imagine them taking up an additional role without a substantial increase in their budget.”

The presidential advisory council “may be of some utility”, he continued, but a system similar to the UK’s Government Office for Science was “badly needed”.

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