French science needs flexibility to compete on the global stage

France needs to change its ‘unduly complex’ funding systems if the country is to stay globally competitive in research and innovation, a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has said.

The report warned that France is starting to lag countries such as Germany and the UK on various metrics, including the impact of publications and degree of specialisation, which is measured as the change in distribution of publications since 2000.

It criticised the way public funding is organised, saying the system is too complex and ‘rigid’. Most government money automatically goes to public research organisations, which makes it difficult for smaller research groups to access funds. The OECD suggested that more funds should be awarded competitively to specific projects aligned with ‘national priorities’.

‘The current trend is to provide money for research groups that are already well-organised, giving little space for new projects’
The review also says France’s industries do not invest enough in R&D – with businesses spending far less on research than other countries. This is partly due to France’s small manufacturing sector, which the government has tried to address with large tax credits for R&D. These, the review says, are difficult to regulate, expensive for the government and tend to favour large businesses without doing much to support small and medium enterprises. It suggests research tax credits for large companies should be made ‘less generous’ in favour of an overall decrease in corporation tax.

The OECD did praise recent reforms such as the Investments for the Future (PIA) initiative – a 10-year plan to invest €35 billion (£28 billion) in research, higher education and SME’s that was introduced by Nicholas Sarkozy’s government in 2010. They stressed that the current government should continue to implement the PIA’s policies while making improvements.

‘If the PIA is to have its full impact, the reforms initiated must continue,’ the report says. ‘The challenge for 2020 is to finalise the changes… by selecting from among the measures in place those that make the system more open and flexible.’

Chemist Bernard Meunier, a former director of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), agrees that existing systems need to change. ‘The current trend is to provide money for research groups that are already well-organised, giving little space for new projects,’ he says. ‘The selection of projects is too complicated and unfair for non-established research teams,’ He also agrees that the tax credit system to support industry is ‘confused’ and should be revised.

The French government have said they understand the OECD’s concerns and have set up a committee – the national commission for the evaluation of innovation policies – made up of government officials, economists, researchers and industry representatives to improve the effectiveness of innovation policies.

But Meunier is unconvinced this will really make a difference, and says the gap between researchers and policy makers is part of the problem. ‘Too many people talking about research in committees have never been in real contact with research laboratories,’ he says. ‘The leading countries have been able to organise efficient contacts between top-level innovators and officials in charge of making decisions to favour innovation.’

‘We should listen to young talented people to understand what they need to have a successful research career in France. A bottom-up approach would be able to address most of the issues raised in the OECD’s report.’

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