Money Versus égalité. France’s researcher unions take the country’s national motto—Liberty, Equality, Fraternity—to heart.

French Research Unions Challenge Plan to Focus Science Funding

It may sound ungrateful, especially given the difficult financial times facing Europe, but part of the French scientific community has brought legal action against the country's new government in order to cancel €7.7 billion worth of funding agreements intended for the development of national excellence clusters. The reason? Such concentration of science funding apparently offends the researchers' sense of égalité.

At the heart of the fight is the Excellence Initiatives (IdEx) program, which France's former President Nicolas Sarkozy launched in 2010 as part of a €21.9 billion boost to research and higher education. The IdEx program, which was allocated €7.7 billion, aims "to allow between five and 10 world-class multidisciplinary poles of excellence in higher education and research to emerge in France," according to a recent press release. With the aid of an international jury, Sarkozy's government selected 8 clusters of universities and institutions to receive an IdEx award: namely IdEx Bordeaux, the University of Strasbourg (Unistra), Paris Sciences et Lettres, Aix-Marseille University IdEx (A*MIDEX), the University of Toulouse (UNITI), IdEx Paris-Saclay, Sorbonne University, and Sorbonne Paris-Cité University. The IdEx awards consist of endowments of between €700 million and €1 billion, which the government holds onto but yields approximately 3.4% in interest for each cluster to use over the next 4 years. That's "a small fraction of the total budget of the university," but it is valuable for catalyzing new infrastructure and initiatives, says pharmacologist Alain Beretz, who is president of the Unistra and put forward its IdEx project.

But the program has raised criticism from Socialist national unions, and the signing of IdEx agreements just before the French general elections in April set fire to the powder. France's national researcher unions and other critics of the IdEx program contend that it threatens core principles—equality, democracy, and a collegial administration—dear to research and higher education in the nation. By concentrating the resources of the national financial boost on a selected number of clusters, "the call for IdEx projects accentuates the inequalities between staff, between students, between establishments, between territories, often even within the same territory," the French National Trade Union of Scientific Researchers (SNCS-FSU) and the National Union of Higher Education Professors (SNESUP-FSU) jointly stated on 14 May. The speedy and pressured signature of IdEx "agreements furthermore aims to lock in some institutional transformations that scorn all the principles of collegial and democratic representation," the unions added. They requested that the signed agreements be cancelled and all the funding programs created under the financial boost be reconsidered.

Last Wednesday, "in absence of a concrete response from the ministry for higher education and research," SNCS-FSU announced the launch of a series of legal actions against the newly elected Socialist government.

SNCS-FSU presented two submissions to Higher Education and Research Minister Geneviève Fioraso for an out-of-court settlement regarding "the multiple violations of the statutes of public establishments" carried out during the "rushed" signing of agreements between the previous government and IdEx Paris-Saclay and A*MIDEX. SNCS-FSU also sent the tribunal dealing with internal disputes in the French civil service a request for a legal settlement against the commitment letter signed by the president of the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilization in Paris for the Sorbonne Paris-Cité IdEx. "These commitments have indeed been made without the consultation of the administration councils of the concerned establishments while these administration councils are, by law, the only ones to have such budgetary competence," SNCS-FSU states.

So far, six out of the eight IdEx agreements have been signed by the French government and relevant institutions, with only the Sorbonne Paris-Cité cluster and the UNITI project in Toulouse not yet officially settled. The newly elected presidents of three of the institutes involved in the UNITI project—the Paul Sabatier University, the University of Toulouse-Le Mirail, and the National Polytechnic Institute of Toulouse—have said that they first want to consult with the local academic community. Outside of changing the governance model so that the people in charge of the new IdEx cluster are elected rather than nominated, the new presidents want to broaden the so-called perimeter of excellence, the research themes and labs each IdEx plans to focus on, to more disciplines so as not to create "segregation," says Bertrand Monthubert, a mathematician at Paul Sabatier University who is also the national secretary of higher education and research for the Socialist Party. "We want to build this [new] University of Toulouse," Monthubert adds. But "we [must] find a way to do it so that the people feel involved with this project."

But as Beretz sees it, "the IdEx is a merit-based competition judged exclusively by a jury of international peers, with very little, if any, political interference. I do not know of any scientist that would oppose such a scheme," he says. "Some of the other questions raised by the IdEx"—like the fate of smaller excellence centers, or the lack of geographical heterogeneity in the repartition of the winning sites—"are of [a] political nature, and thus should be answered by politicians, not scientists," he adds. One adequate political answer to these issues, however, "cannot just be to give less to the excellence centers, because this will automatically lead to a reduced excellence and lack of competitivity of French science."

The new minister hasn't responded to the legal actions, but in a recent interview (in French) with national newspaper Le Monde, Fioraso stated that the government will "reexamine the IdEx [projects] from every angle." She reassured the scientific community that no brutal changes would be made. "We will not damage any good project," Fioraso said, noting that the government will, however, modify the vision of the program by reequilibrating its geographical representation, since the North, West, and Rhône-Alpes regions of France did not win any of the original eight IdEx awards.

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