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France Reshuffles Science Ministry
27 March 2000 7:00 pm
PARIS--France's controversial minister of research and education was sacked this week after a tumultuous 3-year tenure. Geochemist Claude Allègre invoked strong reaction from scientists and a series of protests and recent school closings from the powerful teachers' unions. Prime Minister Lionel Jospin also split the ministry in half, delegating both the research portion and the education portfolio to career politicians.
Firing Allègre was not an easy step for Jospin, who has known the scientist since their university days 40 years ago. But for many researchers and teachers, Allègre had become the man they loved to hate. Allègre combined far-reaching reform proposals with an aggressive, combative style, and the mix was highly combustible (Science, 4 February, p. 781). With support for his Socialist government declining, Jospin apparently had little choice but to dump Allègre and other unpopular ministers.
Allègre's departure leaves researchers wondering about the views of his replacement, lawyer Roger-Gérard Schwartzenberg, who has no background in science. A professor of civil law at the University of Paris, Schwartzenberg served as secretary of state for education before being elected to the National Assembly in 1986. In a radio interview, Schwartzenberg stressed the importance of research to economic growth and pledged to encourage French industry to invest more in science--leaving French scientists hoping for the best. Many researchers criticized Allègre sharply for pushing them to link up with industry without putting similar pressure on companies to take research more seriously. "Nothing was done to induce industry to treat research as other than a furnisher" of raw data, says physicist Harry Bernas at the University of Paris's Orsay campus.
Allègre's departure came just days after part of his controversial reform package of the basic research agency CNRS was approved by its executive board. Two key elements, CNRS president Edouard Brézin told Science, are "greater freedom" to set its own research agenda and the creation of a "fully independent scientific council." Although many French scientists may rejoice at Allègre's departure, they agree on the need to shake up French research. "He was asking a lot of the right questions," says Bernas, "but giving the wrong answers."
With additional reporting by Peter Coles in Paris.