The calm apres Claude

April 14, 2000

The departure of an unloved minister should allow work on a packed French research agenda to progress more smoothly. Here, and overleaf, Jane Marshall reports from France.

Suddenly Claude Allegre was gone. Relations between the combative minister for education, research and technology and France's schoolteachers had deteriorated too much for even his friend of 40 years, prime minister Lionel Jospin, to save him.

Following Jospin's reshuffle in late March the eminent geophysicist has returned to his laboratories at the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris after nearly three years of dispensing educational and research reforms - many of them necessary, but controversial and bitterly opposed, and not helped by his dictatorial negotiating technique.

Replacing him in government are veteran ex-culture minister Jack Lang at education; and, at research, Roger-Gerard Schwartzenberg, a former state secretary in the mid-1980s, first for education then for the universities, and left-wing MP for Val-de-Marne until his ministerial appointment.

Schwartzenberg, 57, has yet to pronounce on the research portfolio he has inherited. With France assuming the European Union presidency from July, the EU Framework programmes and proposed development of a European research area will doubtless be preoccupations.

National priorities, confirmed last year by the inter-ministerial scientific research and technology committee, include: life sciences, notably genome and post-genome programmes; information and communication technologies; human and social sciences; energy, especially renewable sources and low or non-polluting energies; transport and urban development, including a second-generation supersonic plane; space; and planetary and environmental sciences, including forecasting and preventing natural disasters.

But Schwarzenberg's most challenging task will be restoring calm following his predecessor's attempts at statutory reform.

When Jospin appointed Allegre to the new super-ministry in June 1997, scientists were pleased at the prospect of one of their own colleagues taking charge. But they soon found themselves confronted with proposed reforms that sent shock waves through the research community.

Claude Allegre wanted better value for the state's money - more results applicable to industry, especially in fields such as biotechnology and information technology where France was lagging behind its international competitors.

He criticised the rigidity and introspection of the big research organisations, the immobility of the civil service workforce, and the hierarchy that prevented young researchers fulfiling their potential.

Allegre was determined to modernise, but his "top-down" plans to increase employee mobility and open up the big institutions, bringing them into closer collaboration with the universities and industry, provoked strong opposition from researchers.

They feared "Americanisation" of the French system, that developing private activities would lead to the destruction of public service. Faced with a plan to oblige older researchers to take up university posts, they worried their laboratory careers were at risk.

Allegre provoked yet more anger last August when he rejected building a new-generation synchrotron, Soleil, to replace France's ageing Lure installation, in favour of joining Britain's Diamond project. An all-party parliamentary report in March unanimously recommended that Soleil be built in France.

Allegre's negotiating style was a big obstacle to reform, exemplified by such remarks as: "Research is not democracy; the good will receive money, the others shall not do research."

Unions representing public research workers united in opposition. Not only were public-sector researchers at the receiving end of his tirades, three members of Allegre's advisory National Council of Science resigned, including Nobel prizewinner Claude Cohen-Tannoudji.

However, French research has been evolving in recent years. A catalyst for change was last year's innovation law, which removed legal barriers separating public research and private industry, and introduced financial breaks to support the creation of high-tech and other innovatory businesses. For the first time public research workers could set up their own companies to exploit their inventions. Incubators set up by universities or research centres to support "les start-up" are becoming commonplace.

As the public sector has moved closer to business, research and development within the big industrial groups is also adapting to change. According to a survey by Le Monde, research spending by the top 25 companies, including Alcatel, Renault, Thomson-CSF and Aerospatiale, totalled E15 billion (Pounds 9 billion) in 1998, more than 12 per cent more than the previous year.

Many are opening laboratories abroad to capitalise on talent worldwide; at home they are collaborating more closely with universities and the public research organisations. Pharmaceuticals group Pierre Fabre has opened a laboratory with the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the Institut pour la Recherche en Developpement; and Rhone-Poulenc expects that within five years up to a third of its research will be external, compared with 1 per cent now.

After lean years in the 1990s, research must now be profitable; industries such as Renault and France Telecom are appointing research heads with backgrounds in fields such as production or marketing, rather than managers with traditional scientific training.

France's researchers are waiting to see what the new regime has in store for them. So far, Schwartzenberg has been busy establishing his office in the Rue Descartes, but supporters of Soleil were keeping their fingers crossed that there might be a future for the French-based synchrotron after all; the new minister has promised to "listen and discuss".

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