Brussels, 10 Mar 2004
Some 2000 French researchers have resigned in protest against the government's lack of response to their plea against budget cuts, fund freezes and post reductions.
The protest began in January when a petition, circulating on the Internet and entitled 'Let's save Research', was signed by some 70,000 researchers. Ignored by government, in the eyes of the signatories, the protest gathered momentum with waves of demonstrations across France culminating in a meeting in the Paris town hall on 9 March where 976 laboratory directors and 1,100 specialist team leaders resigned from their management roles.
Protesters have been complaining about low wages, unattractive job conditions, insufficient funds for new equipment, a lack of coordination among different research organisations, insufficient links with industry and a sense that the government has put research and innovation activities at the bottom of the list of priorities in a general budget squeeze.
Researchers are particularly critical of a decision to transform 550 permanent jobs for young researchers into part-time posts.
The latest offer of more funds (294 million euro) and 300 extra research jobs from Claudie Haigneré, the Minister for Research and New Technologies, did not appease the protest movement, nor did last-minute appeals by Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the Prime Minister.
'We have not had satisfactory answers to our questions. We will keep putting our questions and increasing our pressure,' said Alain Trautmann, the organiser of the 'Let's Save Research' campaign.
Beyond this there is a feeling that France - long in the forefront of EU countries, possessing a strong scientific community - is losing out.
A recent open letter sent to President Jacques Chirac from a group of expatriate researchers warned other countries were benefiting needlessly from their French scientific education and concluded: 'Unless the present crisis is transformed into a spring-board for activating research in our country, future technological breakthroughs will put us on the wrong side of the divide vis-à-vis Asia and the US'.
Dr Alex Kahn, head of the Cochin Institute in Paris, one of the country's leading medical research institutions agreed, stating that 'France seems the last French speaking country people wish to work in - they think first of Switzerland or Canada. Some are even prepared to go to Japan, but most opt for the US, where the conditions are far more attractive with better salaries and a stable core of research leaders and technicians.'
In 2000, some 3,000 French science graduates and PhDs left for the US alone.
At present, the average wage for young researchers recruited after a doctorate in France is less than 2,000 euro per month. The low salary is compounded by the university system, which is turning out almost 11,000 potential researchers every year with limited job prospects. Their academic work bears little relation to potential employment outside the state institutes, and the latter are cutting back on recruitment.
This is in spite of 2.2 per cent of France's gross domestic product being spent in on research and development (R&D) annually, and a pledge by President Jacques Chirac to raise this to three per cent by 2010.
Protesters say the amount of money dedicated to research in recent years, some nine billion euro in 2004, has barely kept up with inflation, and that many of the country's problems lies with an archaic scientific organisation, with poor links to the private sector, bureaucratic rigidity and a civil service status for all staff which means they have a job for life.
The urgency of reform was underlined in an official report into the management of the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), which, with 11,400 researchers and a total staff of 26,000 is the country's largest scientific establishment.
'The inertia of CNRS stands in stark contrast with the fast-moving world of research,' the report concluded, describing it as an 'organisation possessed of considerable means but minimal capacity to control how they are spent.'
The report noted that two thirds of the CNRS's 2.5 billion euro budget goes on staff salaries, and criticised a system of co-management with trade unions, which means that there is no proper method of self-evaluation. As a result, poor or outdated research projects are allowed to continue indefinitely, it said.
The report also pointed to the problem of the ageing of staff. The average age is 47. Since all researchers in state institutions acquired civil servant status in 1983, this means their pay automatically increases with seniority. As a result, the wage bill has increased exponentially, limiting fresh recruitment and expenditure on equipment.
The government, aware that the system has become ossified, has tried to propose project-related jobs for young researchers who would be better paid but without the current civil service status. Furthermore, Mr Raffarin would like to see tax incentives for companies to invest in private research rather than devoting yet more money to state-funded research. This would be in line with the UK and US systems, where far more money goes into private research
Patrick Devedjian, Minister for local affairs, said that France's scientists should be trying to emulate their American colleagues, who have won 101 Nobel prizes over the past 20 years, compared to France's six. British scientists have won 11. Similarly, the number of patents registered by French scientists is in steep decline.
A second day of protest will be organised for 19 March if no compromise has been reached by then.
For further information on the petition, please visit: