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A Shakeup for French Science
12 January 2006 (All day)
The French government has carried out a swift housecleaning at its top research agency, CNRS. Yesterday, physicist Catherine Bréchignac officially took over as president, replacing Bernard Meunier, who stepped down last week amid controversy. Yesterday, a CNRS official also confirmed that the number two CNRS official, director general Bernard Larrouturou, has gone too. According to a CNRS spokesperson, Bréchignac has already chosen a new director general: Arnold Migus, a physicist and director general of the French Optics Institute in Orsay.
None of the principals is commenting on the shakeup. But former president Meunier, a physicist, released a letter to his staff last week expressing disagreement with the administration of CNRS, saying that "by stepping down, I wish to speed the arrival of a new leadership" (Science, 13 January, p. 161). Government officials have confirmed reports that Meunier clashed often with mathematician Larrouturou over the latter's plans to streamline CNRS operations (Science, 27 May 2005, p. 1243). These changes, which had been in the works since 2005, were due to take effect this month. Meanwhile, a group of agency directors loyal to Larrouturou released a letter yesterday protesting what they called the government's "eviction" of their leader and the apparent scuttling of his plans.
In an interview with the newspaper Le Figaro, French research minister François Goulard said that the disagreements between Meunier and Larrouturou had made normal work at CNRS an "impossibility." To reduce the likelihood of such conflicts in the future, Goulard explained, CNRS will soon do away with the dual leadership titles and create a single new position of president director general, which Bréchignac will hold.
Still unclear is what will become of plans to overhaul CNRS operations. Jean-François Minster, Scientific Director General of CNRS and one of the directors behind the letter of protest, hopes that Bréchignac will "start working with the system in place. We cannot allow ourselves to change direction all the time; the CNRS must keep functioning on a day-to-day basis." Bréchignac's next steps could be decisive. Depending what happens, there could be more resignations, he says: "We will all decide for ourselves."
Jules Hoffmann, an immunologist and research director at CNRS, regrets that disagreements among the staff have taken such a toll. Replacing the two disputing CNRS leaders "with a strong personality like Bréchignac is probably the best move," he says. "All we can hope is that she is going to settle things."