PARIS--France's mammoth basic research agency has come under blistering attack from the nation's government accounting body. In a report issued last week, the Cour des Comptes took the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) to task for a variety of alleged faults, including a lack of overall research strategy, organizational rigidity, and lackadaisical efforts to promote the careers of young scientists. CNRS officials argue that the report did not take into account recent initiatives or the organization's prodigious scientific output.
With a $2.2 billion annual budget and 11,400 researchers, CNRS is often a target of the Cour des Comptes' annual scrutiny of government operations. But the report for fiscal year 2001 is particularly harsh. Auditors criticized the agency for failing to coordinate the research activities of its various labs and for paying only lip service to research initiatives that could lead to commercial applications.
CNRS director-general Geneviève Berger dismisses these complaints. "Having a strategic vision does not mean stifling the researchers," she says. Others agree. "The Cour des Comptes did not understand that the CNRS can't be run like the post office," says Anne-Marie Duprat of the Center for Developmental Biology in Toulouse. "The labs must have a certain amount of freedom." And Berger insists the agency does try to commercialize its research: Since 1994, annual license and royalty income from the agency's scientific patents has climbed to $26 million, a 10-fold increase.
Berger argues that the report "hardly mentions" the scientific output of CNRS, whose researchers author or co-author more than 70% of all scientific papers published in France. She does agree, however, with the auditors' criticisms that CNRS needs to encourage more interdisciplinary research and collaborate more with other European countries.
The Cour des Comptes saved much of its fire for CNRS's treatment of young researchers, who--under the hierarchical French system--often find it difficult to set up their own labs. Berger and other CNRS researchers counter that this critique does not take into account measures begun last year to set aside funds for young scientists. "That is really starting to work well," says Duprat. "The young teams are starting to take off."