Top French lab feels the squeeze

January 19, 1996

The New Year has brought fresh rumours of a radical shake-up at France's biggest public research organisation, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.

According to CNRS management, the rumours are unfounded. "Any changes to managerial structures should not affect the laboratories, and reforms which will affect research will first be fully debated," said spokesman Nicholas de Schonen.

Yet such reassurances do little to lift the gloom and suspicion which hover over much of the institution.

For three years now, the 12,000 CNRS researchers have seen their budgets squeezed by successive governments. Added to that downward trend, new accounting methods drastically realigned "project authorisations" and "payments" - what the laboratories actually get.

The gulf between those theoretical and actual budget lines reached unprecedented levels last year. Only a pre-election handout in April 1995 averted a major budget crisis.

According to the scientists' union the SNCS, project authorisations are down 20 per cent on 1993 levels and payments are down 9 per cent in real terms. The CNRS management agrees there has been a financial crisis but says its funding from government has remained "stable".

"Sometimes, I have to refuse permission to spend Pounds 10 if there is not a matching sum in the right budget line. The remainder of each annual budget used to be carried over automatically the following year, we now have to ask permission to keep the remainder and can lose it," explained laboratory director and chemist Max Costa.

His budget is a third of what it was three years ago and his team, which uses its own prototypes to analyse mononuclear films on the surface of materials, has been told to quit the CNRS's Bellevue centre in Meudon near Paris this year. "We were never told why the hard science units here had to leave. Mine is to be disbanded - a terrible waste of internationally respected research work, built up over years," he commented.

"Bellevue is an old site, the premises are not very rational for research. It is cheaper to build a new laboratory in the provinces than to renovate a Paris one," explained Mr de Schonen.

The relocation of Bellevue laboratories appears to have been part of another trend which has, quite literally, unsettled many CNRS scientists in recent years - the transfer of researchers to the provinces to achieve an even spread nationwide.

The former ratio of 60 per cent of researchers in the Paris region to 40 per cent in the provinces has been reversed.

While the plan is to avert that development through a recruitment strategy, there are no extra posts at the CNRS in the 1996 budget.

Tatiana Muxart, head of a geography laboratory at Bellevue, is not affected by relocation but also faces budget problems. "My budget allocation went down 20 per cent last year with no official explanation. I was told informally that it was because we win a lot of research contracts, but that should mean we get strong backing from the CNRS, not withdrawal of support!" Ms Muxart's only secretary retired last month and has not been replaced. With a CNRS allocation of Pounds 33,000 a year and 50 people in her unit, field work - essential for their studies of environmental pollution - ends up being subsidised out of their own pockets, she says.

Outside contracts may have become a way of life for most public research institutions in Britain or the US, but the fact that research has to be "profitable" is still strongly resented by many at the CNRS, whose scientists have lifelong civil servant status.

The CNRS has never made explicit any particular policy on the role of contracts in laboratory funding. One change introduced by director general Guy Aubert was the clear separation of outside contract money and CNRS funds.

With the recent scandal over the allocation of research funds from cancer charity ARC, rules for budget clarity and accountability are likely to be tightened up further.

"When Guy Aubert arrived in 1994, he wanted to launch projects to improve the CNRS's research potential, but it has taken all his time and energy to deal with the financial problems. Now, he will begin to tackle scientific matters," added Mr de Schonen.

Another bone of contention between CNRS scientists and management is the role of the National Committee, its elected, consultative science policy body. Some committee members say the body is increasingly sidelined or asked to advise only on the last stages of any changes. Mr Aubert says he is "perfectly aware" he can only enact changes if they win broad consensus from the research community. On taking up the post of director general, he promised "evolution, not revolution" for a scientific community he described as "hypersensitive" and "watchful".

Henri-Edouard Audier, who heads a chemistry laboratory at the Ecole Polytechnique and who as a union member sits on the CNRS board, says: "The CNRS can no longer afford to keep all of its teams. It is clear that it is going to pull out of many joint CNRS-university units," he said. "But if a major reform is put forward in the present difficult financial context, it will backfire."

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