Minister rethinks X-ray for France

May 19, 2000


France's new research minister, Roger-Gerard Schwartzenberg, last week presented his policies, most of them continuing and building on the programmes of his predecessor, Claude All gre.

The only big change was his sympathetic reconsideration of plans for a new-generation synchrotron in France, which All gre had cancelled in favour of joining Britain's Diamond project. Another marked difference from his predecessor is character: from his days in the early 1980s as state secretary of education and then of universities, Schwartzenberg has been recognised as a good listener and negotiator.

Common themes in Schwartzenberg's proposals were: mobility of researchers and multidisciplinarity in research; innovation and closer ties between universities, public research organisations and industry; and development of common laboratories, incubators for innovatory companies and joint public-private centres for technological research.

One of his main concerns is public-sector personnel - the need to rejuvenate an ageing workforce and to reverse France's brain drain, notably to the United States. Recruitment age, which used to be about 24 years, has risen to 30, the average age of researchers is 46, and the "queue" that confronted bright young holders of doctorates entering the system led many of them to seek lucrative employment abroad. With the bulk of the huge postwar intake due to retire during the next decade, Schwartzenberg is anxious to phase in the next generations carefully, avoiding mass last-minute recruitments.

Schwartzenberg said he regretted that research is not listed among government priorities and that its budget has fallen from 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product in 1994 to 2.1 per cent in the current year. He said he has discussed the need to reverse the trend with the finance minister.

Research policies he highlighted were:

* Life sciences, still top priority, especially the genome and post-genome programmes and applied technologies for health. A national network of health technologies is being launched to bring together researchers, clinicians and industry

* Development of information and communication technologies, with the aim of creating "a society of information for all" to avoid "digital fracture" between generations or regions, a new form of social exclusion

* Environment and energy, with the aim of reconciling often mutually distrustful environmentalists and scientists. New research networks will be established for water and the environment; for observation of the earth via satellite for forecasting and preventing natural disasters such as floods; and for pollution from marine and coastal accidents

* Promotion of human and social sciences, with a multidisciplinary approach between social and "hard" science researchers and a stronger ethical element

* Space. As leader in the European partnership, which includes the successful Ariane programme, France must push policy ahead, Schwartzenberg said. He also confirmed continued cooperation with the Mars mission.

Schwartzenberg also looked ahead to France's presidency of the European Union, which starts in July, during which the sixth research and development framework programme will be launched. His aims include encouraging innovatory companies throughout the union and creating joint public-private technological research networks and a European academy of sciences.

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