'Putsch' topples research chief

January 20, 2006

France's National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS) is in crisis following the resignation of its president, the appointment of a successor, the dismissal of its director-general and a mass revolt by departmental directors in support of the sacked head.

The chain of events started with the resignation of Bernard Meunier, president of the multidisciplinary centre since October 2004, because of incompatibility with director-general Bernard Larrouturou.

Last week, junior research minister Francois Goulard appointed nuclear physicist Catherine Brechignac - who was director-general of the centre from 1997 to 2000 - to succeed Dr Meunier.

At the same time Dr Larrouturou was fired because, according to the minister, Dr Brechignac did not wish to work with him. Under CNRS statutes, the president appoints the director-general.

Members of the centre's management committee sent an angry letter to President Jacques Chirac, protesting at the "brutal interruption" of Dr Larrouturou's term of office. They stated it was "in effect a dismissal of all the members of the management team appointed by the director-general".

The signatories had been appointed by Dr Larrouturou as he implemented his reforms.

Mr Goulard has cited the inability of Dr Larrouturou and Dr Meunier to work together in justifying the dismissal, although it is unclear why this should remain a problem after Dr Meunier's departure. The minister said Dr Larrouturou's successor would "identify with the views of the new president", Dr Brechignac.

A Chirac adviser has been identified as an influence in the dismissal.

Reports suggest that Dr Larrouturou, who became director-general in August 2003, was not inclined to follow political orders. At a New Year ceremony with CNRS staff last week, he denounced the "putsch" that had unseated him.

The action group Sauvons la Recherche condemned his dismissal, although it had previously criticised his managerial reforms, which they said took "too little account of proposals made by the laboratories".

But Dr Larrouturou had, said the group, "fought to defend the CNRS" and his sacking was "obviously a decision hostile to the CNRS".

The CNRS is France's - and Europe's - largest research institution. It has 26,000 employees including 11,600 researchers and a budget of e2.2 billion (£1.5 billion) in 2004. Over 80 per cent of its laboratories are mixed units with universities, grandes ecoles and other research organisations.

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