Radical new order for French science

January 11, 2002

Jane Marshall meets the woman who has been set the challenge of bringing about a revolution in French scientific research

A few years ago France's foremost body of scientific research was criticised for being immobile, too narrowly specialised and bureaucratic. Wearing a chic trouser suit with golden jewellery, her blonde hair in a spiky style, Geneviève Berger, its director since September 2000, does not match this image.

The 62-year-old National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) is in the process of radical transformation and Berger is representative of the new order - young and innovative, with a multidisciplinary training.

"The three developments to which we are now very attached are interdisciplinarity, promoting the young and opening up to Europe," she says. Still in her mid-40s, she landed the job when the CNRS was giving in to change after three years of enforced radical reform under former education and research minister Claude Allegre, who described the centre as "fossilised, compartmentalised and mandarinic".

Despite resistance, Allegre laid the groundwork for modernisation with his programme to rejuvenate the workforce and to remove the structural and psychological barriers separating major public research bodies, such as the CNRS, from universities and industry. His innovation law permitted state-employed researchers to commercialise their inventions in their own companies.

In March 2000, Allegre left the government and his super-ministry encompassing education and research was split. Roger-Gérard Schwartzenberg took over research and the sector calmed down.

Berger is the CNRS's second woman director-general - succeeding the first, Catherine Brechignac, under whom the reforms began. Today, 85 per cent of CNRS research units are within university laboratories and links with industry are multiplying. CNRS scientists have created more than 70 companies and have registered 5,000 patents.

Berger holds a triple doctorate - in physical sciences, medicine and human biology - and her career is studded with awards. Before her present job, she was technology director at the research ministry, and past positions at the CNRS include directorship of the parametric imaging laboratory, chair of the therapeutics and medicines section of the national scientific research committee and membership of the engineering sciences department council. She was awarded the CNRS silver medal in 1994 and the French Physics Society's Yves Rocard prize in 1997.

In 1996, she became professor and hospital practitioner at the University of Paris-VI, Pierre et Marie Curie and Broussais-Hotel Dieu teaching hospital, where she was appointed clinical director of the biophysics and nuclear medicine service in 1997.

Schwartzenberg stresses the importance of her multidisciplinary background. "The CNRS management team must represent the plurality of the major disciplinary sectors" for which the centre has responsibility, he says. Life sciences are a high priority and "by appointing Berger we are indicating the great interest the ministry has in this sector and the will to give it fresh impetus".

Berger, therefore, has the distinction of being "appointed by two ministers - first by Allegre to be technology head at the ministry, then by Schwartzenberg to the CNRS". She is on a four-year, renewable contract, in charge of nearly 26,000 employees and a budget of more than €2.5 billion (£1.55 billion).

She is planning the future of the CNRS. Half its staff will retire and need replacing in the next few years - an opportunity for rejuvenating the workforce, opening promotion prospects for bright young researchers and expanding the number of multidisciplinary posts. "Multidisciplinarity does not mean killing off an area of research," she says. "It is not a replacement; it is a plus."

Emphasis is being placed on integrating human and social sciences in fields such as information and communications technology and life sciences. So far, some 20 interdisciplinary programmes have been developed in five main areas - life sciences and social issues; information and knowledge; environment and energy; materials and nanotechnologies; and astroparticle physics.

A CNRS statute introduced in 2001 gives the centre more autonomy and has a quota on its board for foreign scientists - especially from the European Union. The CNRS is developing mixed laboratories with universities in countries including the United States, China and Japan as well as Europe.

A recent Berger initiative is the mission to improve the role of women in the CNRS, to investigate why men do better than women within the organisation and to promote equality. While there are 10,700 female employees to 14,600 men, "women hold more technical and administrative posts than men, and remain underrepresented at the top of the pyramid. If you take directors of research, out of 130 there are only five women," Berger says.

She believes it is more than just comparing numbers. "It is to do with notions of power, and men and women have different systems of networks. Women have many other constraints and have to organise their time differently." Berger herself has two children, both now teenagers.

Another new project is a public information service. "As a major centre, we have a role to explain science," Berger says. An interactive website is being set up through which "CNRS specialists will explain society's hot issues, give the facts and be objective".

Berger sees her biggest challenge as keeping at the forefront of scientific research. "My biggest fear is missing new developments that are emerging. In my job, when you initiate research this is a heavy responsibility."

Details: www.cnrs.fr

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