PARIS--French scientists mounted an historic protest here yesterday, when more than 800 members of the national governing committee of CNRS--France's giant basic research agency--jammed the ornate House of Chemistry to contest research minister Claude Allègre's proposals to reshape the French research establishment. The meeting marks only the fourth time the CNRS's full science committee has convened since its creation in 1945--and the first time it has met at the request of the researchers themselves.
Like many historic events in France, the daylong meeting had its share of fireworks. Many scientists heatedly attacked Allègre's plan--which seeks to create closer ties between the CNRS, universities, and industry. The research ministry's representative was nearly booed off the stage when he attempted to defend his boss's reform proposals.
Underlying the protest are years of smoldering dissatisfaction with research conditions, including stagnant budgets that have squeezed many labs. But Allègre fanned the flames with what many see as a heavy-handed attempt to make CNRS labs subservient to the universities, which have a poor reputation among research scientists. "The last place to put research in France is in the universities," says physicist Harry Bernas, who works in a CNRS unit on the Orsay campus of the University of Paris. "They can't cope with it. The French university system is straight out of Kafka."
But physicist Edouard Brézin, president of the CNRS's executive board, says that researchers' fears are misplaced. "This idea that a closer approach to the universities will weaken the CNRS is false," he says. He was joined in criticizing the scientists' rebellion by Vincent Courtillot, the research ministry's director-general for research. Courtillot's claim that French research has failed to pay off in economic terms, capped by the assertion that "the unemployed have created more businesses than have researchers," was met with loud cries of "False! False!"
By the end of the meeting, opposition to Allègre's plan seemed to have united the scientists as never before. Chemist Pierre Potier, director of a CNRS institute in the Paris suburb of Gif-sur-Yvette, summed up the feelings of many researchers: "We agree with the minister that things must move, but not just in any old direction."