FOR THE first time in the history of France's public research institutes, a woman has been appointed to the top job. Particle physicist Catherine Brechignac has been appointed by the new leftwing coalition government as director of the largest institute, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS).
The government is actively supporting the promotion of women to top jobs and several key cabinet portfolios are held by women.
Outgoing CNRS director Guy Aubert was not asked to serve a customary second term. He had piloted the CNRS through painful austerity measures to make up a budget shortfall and channelled funding towards targeted research and development programmes.
Education minister Claude All gre said: "I want to put more emphasis on funds going directly to the laboratories for basic research, not to 'programmes'. I also want to give the CNRS the means to play a full role within the European scientific community."
He is against setting narrow, "wealth-creating" targets and believes that leaving scientists free to explore basic research will help the economy best.
The one target area is medical and biomedical research, which may get extra funds and new posts. There are signs that the space research institute, CNES, could be trimmed and the activities of the atomic research centre, the CEA, redefined. Mr All gre said Mrs Brechignac's appointment carried a "strong symbolic message".
A distinguished scientist with over a hundred publications and several awards, she has spent her career at the CNRS, becoming head of the physics and mathematics department two years ago.
Her latest work on the interaction between atomic particle clusters and surfaces explores an area on the borderline between physics and the chemistry of surfaces.
One of her tasks will be to "de-bureaucratise" the CNRS, whose 26,000-strong staff, including 11,000 researchers, are thought to make it one of the world's biggest, if not the biggest, research institute.
Mr All gre wants Mrs Brechignac to hire more young researchers. The average age is now over 45 and the payroll absorbs 75 per cent of the CNRS budget. There is a growing pool of unemployed young researchers, with few posts on offer and a further 10,000 PhDs awarded each year adding to the job crisis.
Mr All gre has promised to open 2,500 lectureships in universities this year instead of the 1,500 scheduled by the previous government. With no extra funds for expansion, he will redeploy part of the universities' budget for overtime which is used to pay incumbent staff to fill the gaps.
He also intends to ensure the private sector hires more young PhD-holders and says he will use the leverage of the education ministry's huge range of outside contracts to ensure partner companies have a positive record in this matter.