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Chemists give cautious welcome for French science reforms


05 June 2008

French chemists are trying to make sense of an uncertain future, following the announcement that France's main research agency - the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) - is to be chopped into six pieces.

Although the reform had been mooted for months, it has grabbed headlines since French research minister Valérie Pécresse chose to publicise the plans in an interview with Le Monde newspaper on 20 May.

The six semi-autonomous CNRS institutes will be created by the end of the year, and cover chemistry, mathematics, physics, engineering sciences, humanities and social sciences, and ecology and biodiversity. Both Pécresse and CNRS declined to comment.

The CNRS overhaul is the latest science and education reform from French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Last year, his government passed a law that gave universities more autonomy over hiring scientists and allocating budgets, and promised to spend 5 billion euros to improve science and raise international recognition at a small number of universities - similar to a program in Germany to create a so-called German Ivy League. 

Hazy plans

Concrete details of the CNRS reorganisation remain hazy and will only emerge in coming weeks, according to French chemists who spoke to Chemistry World. Some admitted that they were trying to 'read between the lines' of Pécresse's comments on the issue.

For example, Pécresse vowed to establish international standards of governance at French research institutions that would improve transparency and attract top scientists from abroad. 

The comments were broadly welcomed by two chemists working at French research institutions, who spoke to Chemistry World on condition of anonymity. They describe the CNRS as top-heavy with bureaucracy, where gaining approval to hire a post-doc for a research team can take more than a year.

They also claim that members of the powerful CNRS committee which dispenses research and recruitment money to chemists act as 'a Mafia', looking after their own interests and those of their friends in preference to other scientists.  

The possibility that this entrenched power base could be broken up is good news, one says - 'if it is done correctly'.

Chemists' relief

Paul Rigny, a member of the Board of Directors of the French Chemical Society (SFC), says CNRS chemists are relieved that the current CNRS Department of Chemistry will survive the revamp to become the CNRS Chemistry Institute. Rigny says attempts were made in the past to shut down the CNRS Chemistry Department and shift the pieces to other disciplines, such as physics, material sciences and life sciences.

'The chemistry community always fought against it and the fights were successful,' says Rigny, who is editor-in-chief of L'Actualité Chimique. 'So the fact that there will be an institute for chemistry is a relief.'

However, Rigny, who was director of the CNRS Chemistry Department from 1990-96, says that chemists are concerned over Pécresse's plan to remove the CNRS Life Sciences Department, which accounts for about a quarter of the CNRS budget, from the CNRS system and move it to the national biomedical agency Inserm. 

During his directorship at CNRS, Rigny says, 'one of my main tasks was developing the interface between chemistry and biology and I created a number of new laboratories collaborating with biology.' Although Rigny does not believe the departure of Life Sciences will result in a mass movement of CNRS chemists to Inserm, it could mean a cut in funds for chemistry. He adds of the impending break-up: 'It will likely cause many problems with interface between chemistry and biology.'

Fait accompli

Despite groups of placard-wielding scientists demonstrating against the CNRS reorganisation, Rigny sees the break-up as a fait accompli. 'The final decisions are not finalized yet,' he says. 'But the general scheme is probably definite.'

Jean-Marie Basset, scientific director for chemistry and chemical engineering at the CNRS-affiliated School for Chemistry, Physics and Electronics (CPE) at the University of Lyon, agrees. 'I don't think there will be any big fight. But I speak as an experienced man,' says Basset, who has spent 30 years with CNRS. 'I have seen so many reorganizations in my life, this is just another one.'

Basset says a major topic of discussion in e-mail communication swirling around France has been Pécresse's desire for closer cooperation between CNRS scientists and industry on issues that society sees as important, such as lowering CO2 emissions.

'Some are afraid that we will not be able to do basic research in the future,' says Basset, also director of the CPE's Laboratory of Surface Organometallic Chemistry. 'But you still need basic research to solve global warming,' he says.

Although the CNRS overhaul is making waves, Basset believes that the ongoing programme of university reform and investment will have a much bigger impact on improving French research. He was involved in the University of Lyon's successful bid to be part of the first group of elite universities, along with the universities of Bordeaux, Grenoble, Montpellier, Strasbourg and Toulouse.

'This is more important than the CNRS reforms,' he asserts. 'I am very positive in the way the new government is pushing scientific research. We have much more money now than 5 years ago.'

Ned Stafford

 

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