New French Science Law Falls Short of Expectations

22 March 2013 5:45 pm

Months of consultation with the French scientific community culminated on Wednesday when the science minister presented a draft bill for a new higher education and research law that France's Parliament will soon consider. The crafting of the new law began with high hopes among scientists, including that it would reduce competition between researchers, institutions, and regions and simplify an overly complex national education and research system. But many now feel that the draft bill sidestepped some key issues, such as funding and job stability. As part of a call from French trade unions and various research associations, students and nonpermanent scientific staff members held a protest in Paris yesterday to call for the public research money now allocated to companies under the form of tax incentives to be injected into the academic system and new permanent positions to be created. "The draft bill … doesn't respond to any of [our] expectations," Laure Villate, a Ph.D. population genomicist on a short-term contract at the National Institute for Agricultural Research in Bordeaux, tells ScienceInsider.

The draft bill that the French Minister for Higher Education and Research Geneviève Fioraso presented to the Council of Ministers on Wednesday consists of 20 measures that altogether aim to increase student access to university and graduate employment and give research a new impetus in order to boost the nation's economic recovery and competitiveness. Seeking to address the complexity and opacity of France's higher education and research landscape, for example, the draft bill proposes that the nation's universities and other higher education institutions and research laboratories over time gather into 30 or so regional groupings. Some already-existing collaborative clusters will thus disappear to become the so-called "communities of universities and institutions," which are meant to be more inclusive and cooperative, democratic in their governance, and more open to their regional and socioeconomic environment.

The bill also aims to help France more easily set a stronger and clearer national strategic research agenda, which is to be in line with the priority areas set in the European funding program Horizon 2020. In charge of designing such a national strategy will be the newly created Strategic Council of Research, which is to replace two existing consulting bodies in an effort to simplify research governance at the national level.

The bill further proposes replacing the highly criticized Evaluation Agency for Research and Higher Education (AERES) by a newly created High Council of Research and Higher Education Evaluation, designed to allow institutions to be evaluated coherently with research laboratories and education programs. In contrast to AERES, which was largely perceived as running overwhelming and redundant evaluations, the council will accredit evaluation procedures to be proposed by the institutions, only performing the evaluations themselves at the request of the institutions.

Some of these changes are in the right direction, says pharmacologist Alain Beretz, president of the University of Strasbourg. Overall, Beretz adds, he feels positively about the new law, though "I'm still cautious on many points." In particular, how the new regional groupings will be put together and how they are going to spread internally the money that they will receive from the government needs to be clarified. "We do hope it will simplify things," he says. As for the revamped evaluation strategy, "this is still a matter of concern for research-intensive universities such as Strasbourg," Beretz adds. "We feel that we still need a common transversal evaluation for all our labs" regardless of whether they are assessed by universities, the National Centre for Scientific Research, or the National Institute of Health and Medical Research.

The bill completely leaves aside one request that Beretz and many in the scientific community desired: a guarantee of adequate financial means for higher education and research. In 2007, the French government, under then-President Nicolas Sarkozy, passed an "autonomy" law for universities that gave them greater control over their affairs. But some have criticized the measure, arguing that it plunged universities into financial difficulties by giving them the responsibility to handle their staff salaries without sufficient funding to cover associated costs. "Many university presidents were asking that the [new] law would somehow introduce some budgetary guarantees," Beretz says, but "we are still concerned on the way universities will be funded in the future."

While presenting the draft bill, the ministry pointed out that it had started offering some management and financial help to struggling universities. It also said that a complementary measure to the law would be put in place so that a portion of the competitive grants would be reallocated to research labs under the form of recurrent lump sums to better support fundamental research. But more needs to be done, the scientific community insists. In an article published yesterday in Le Monde, the Council of University Presidents called for long-term financial support so universities could fully exert their autonomy and rise to the national political ambitions.

The proposed bill does not specifically address the plight of nonpermanent research staff members, who, over the last decade, have seen their numbers increase and their opportunities to get permanent positions shrink. But in one of the documents accompanying the draft bill, the ministry reiterated its previous commitment to creating 8400 permanent positions over 4 years to offer job stability to people on short-term contracts and to putting in place new regulation capping the number of short-term staff members employed on competitive grants. Nonetheless, during her presentation at the Council of Ministers on Wednesday, Fioraso admitted the limitations of the draft bill itself. "The budgetary context doesn't allow an immediate response to the preoccupations of the universities whose budgets have degraded … and neither to the concerns of students who have also been affected by the crisis or to the precarious situation of research staff," she said.

Following Fioraso's presentation of the draft bill to the Council of Ministers, Parliament will debate the legislation, starting on 27 May. Many in the scientific community still hope to influence the Parliament to introduce last-minute changes.

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