Sarkozy Slams French Science

27 January 2009 1:25 pm

PARIS— Words can still sting. Incensed by a provocative policy speech delivered by President Nicolas Sarkozy last Thursday—and fed up with the frantic pace of reform—France’s researchers’ unions have threatened to go on strike indefinitely starting 2 February. Despite the warning, the government says it plans to forge ahead with the science and higher education reforms that have led to this war of wills.

The strike's official purpose is to force a reversal of a recent decision, issued by governmental decree, to allow university presidents to decide how academic staff members divide their time between research and teaching. But the discontent is much broader. Unions and allied movements such as Sauvons la Recherche (SLR) and Sauvons l'Université are fiercely opposed to a raft of ongoing changes that move the country closer to an Anglo-Saxon system based on university autonomy and competitive funding rather than state control and lifetime employment for scientists.

In his feisty speech—the official transcript is riddled with exclamation marks—Sarkozy lambasted the research system as "infantilizing and paralyzing," argued that French scientists aren't productive enough, and announced that after decades of failed attempts at change, radical reforms are now his government's top priority. "The forces of conservatism and immobilism have always triumphed," he said, "and that has to stop." He also said that the National Center for Scientific Research will essentially become a funding agency instead of carrying out research of its own, and he announced an 18-member panel to come up with a new National Research and Innovation Strategy. Sarkozy threatened that promised budget increases for university funding will go through only if the reforms are accepted.

In a written reaction, SLR spokesperson Alain Trautmann said the speech was full of "lies and insults" and had created "shame and anger" among scientists. The unions have also called on researchers to join a general 1-day strike against the government's social policies that is expected to paralyze the country on Thursday.

Here’s a selection of other incendiary quotes from Sarkozy's speech:

I don't see at all how a system of weak universities, led by a finicky central government, could be an efficient weapon in the battle for intelligence. On the contrary, it's a system that infantilizes and paralyzes creativity and innovation. That's why we gave the universities autonomy …

No other country has produced so many institutes, agencies, groups and other microscopic organizations that dilute means and responsibilities, pull every which way, and waste time and money ...

Is science just a question of financial means and jobs? How then do we explain that with science spending higher than in Great Britain, and about 15% more researchers than our English friends, France is well behind in its scientific production? Somebody better explain that to me! More researchers, fewer publications, and excuse me, I don't want to be unpleasant, with a comparable budget, a French researcher publishes 30% to 50% less than a British one in some sectors …

Sometimes I hear people say: We have to have a pause in the reforms. I'd like to reply: Tired already? Really, two years of reforms, that should bearable! …

Really, for higher education, for research and innovation, 2009 will be the year of action and reforms.

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