PARIS--While soccer fans last week were celebrating France's World Cup victory, government ministers here endorsed an ambitious plan to win a similar prize for French science. Over the next 4 years, France will attempt to double the impact of its scientific publications, triple the number of its international patents, and create 400 new high-technology companies. "We are going to make radical changes," said geochemist Claude Allègre, France's research and education minister, at a press conference immediately after the closed-door meeting on 15 July.
These changes will include a move toward a system of peer-reviewed grants to finance publicly funded research. This would be a radical step for French science, which relies on arcane and complex formulas to distribute most research funds to government laboratories. The government also plans to shift gradually the evaluation of research in the giant public research institutions, such as the basic research agency CNRS and the biomedical research agency INSERM, away from internal committees and instead rely on external review panels made up of French and foreign scientists.
If these reforms are adopted, "it will be a fantastic change," says Pierre Chambon, director of the Institute of Genetics and Molecular and Cellular Biology near Strasbourg. A peer-review system will funnel more research money to "active young people, good people," rather than allow funds to wind up concentrated in the hands of senior lab directors, whose productive years may be behind them, says Chambon, who has been chosen to head the external review panel for the CNRS.
These changes are likely to meet resistance from scientists concerned that a peer-review system will lead to stiff competition for limited funds. "There are certain lines of research that are not fashionable and that are difficult to finance," says microbiologist Richard D'Ari of the Jacques Monod Institute in Paris. "These areas should be protected."
Some researchers have expressed skepticism that the goals can be met. "My only question is, how is all this going to be carried out?" asks Philippe Froguel, director of the human genetics department at the Pasteur Institute in Lille. Still, Chambon and others say the future of French research hangs in the balance. "If Allègre doesn't succeed in changing French research," he says, "it will be a long time before anything will happen."