Benoit Tessier/Reuters

Lightning rod.
Nicolas Sarkozy's plans for science are as controversial as the rest of his political agenda.

French Election Heralds Changes for Science

Martin is a contributing news editor and writer based in Amsterdam

PARIS--French scientists are feeling the winds of change after yesterday's election of conservative leader Nicolas Sarkozy as the country's new president. Sarkozy has announced reform plans--including a shake-up of the higher education system as early as this summer--which are opposed by trade unions and other groups. But some researchers say Sarkozy's recipe is just what French science needs.

Both Sarkozy, who chairs the Union for a Popular Movement, and his socialist rival Ségolène Royal had made research into campaign themes, and both had promised hefty hikes in science and higher education budgets. That is a victory in itself, says Jules Hoffmann, president of the French National Academy of Sciences. "Research has never been this high on the agenda before," he says.

But Sarkozy has presented a more radical package of reforms to remedy what is widely seen as the malaise of French science. He has said he will introduce a law within 6 months that would offer universities, currently run by the state, much more autonomy--for instance, to manage their own budgets and set recruitment and research policy. He has also suggested turning the big research institutions, such as the National Center for Scientific Research, into U.S.-style granting agencies that would reward proposals rather than employ scientists.

Those plans have alarmed Sauvons la Recherche (SLR), the movement that brought thousands of researchers to the streets in 2004 to protest cuts to science budgets by Jacques Chirac's government. Sarkozy seems set to rush his higher education plans through Parliament without proper consultation by the scientific community, says SLR President Bertrand Monthubert. Furthermore, turning the research organizations into funding agencies would create more uncertainty for young researchers and make science careers less attractive, he says. "What works in Britain or the U.S. doesn't necessarily work in France."

But others say such reforms are badly needed. "For me, [Sarkozy's election] is a great hope," says Jean-Robert Pitte, president of the University of Paris-Sorbonne. As far as Pitte is concerned, the reforms should also include the right for universities to raise tuition fees and to select the best students rather than admitting everyone who qualifies--two hot-button issues that go against France's egalitarian streak and are bound to trigger protests, he admits. "I hope the government will be courageous and hard," Pitte says.

But Bernard Bobe, an economist at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Chimie in Paris, is not convinced that drastic changes in the research and education system will be a high priority for Sarkozy, who has announced ambitious plans on a range of other issues. France's science system has proven extremely resistant to reform, Bobe notes; "I think Sarkozy has the courage, but I'm not sure he has the ambition" to succeed where others failed.

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