Why it’s so important to demonstrate now and what are you hoping to achieve? «Sciences en Marche is one of the initiatives launched in 2014 for trying to alert the population, the media, the Parliament and the government, on the fact that if we do nothing, our research system will progressively be dismantled. With the same type of logic, austerity will increase, deflation would install, public services will get smaller and weaker, and all the country will go straight in the wall. I consider important to struggle for the defense of research not because it would be a question more important than education or health system. It is important because it has a symbolic value, it may have long lasting and large consequences for the future, and its cost is quite modest compared to health or education. And also compared to the major corporate tax reductions that our government has recently decided.»
By Alain Trautmann (this interview was made by Carlo di Foggia for the issue of ll Fatto Quotidiano of September 8th – you may download here the PDF )
France is somewhere at the border between Northern and Southern European countries. If one compares the situation of research in France and in Greece, Spain, Portugal or Italy, it is a good one. Thus, there still is a high level public research in our country, CNRS is well known at an international level (each year, 30% of people hired for a permanent CNRS position are not French). However, the global investment of France in research is much below that of research in Germany or in Northern European countries (Sweden, Denmark, Finland). In addition, the organization of public research and of universities has deeply changed during the last decade (see below), such that many researchers are very stressed and anxious, so that some of them, whether or not they have a job, either emigrate or quit science. This state of depression is not specific to research, it is shared by many other people in the country. However, it is quite upsetting for people, like me, who are convinced that another policy is quite possible, in a rich country like France.
How the distribution of funds for research and for the university has changed over the past decade?
Over the last decade, the global R&D effort of our country (public + corporate) has remained desperately stagnant, slightly above 2%. Thus, the Lisbon treaty of 2000 (and its 3% objective) has by no means been respected. There have even been clear attempts to reduce our public effort, for instance by Jacques Chirac in 2003, which has led to the movement “Sauvons La Recherche” in 2004, which has blocked this first cutting attempt.
Since then, the only major change has been the huge increase of the “Crédit Impôt Recherche“, decided by Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007. This measure, which now costs 6000 million euros every year, is a tax reduction for private companies that have a research activity (or pretend to do so, for some banks and insurance companies). This is counted in the “public effort for research”, but is not at all for public research or universities. This and other tricks have allowed N. Sarkozy to claim that he has been doing major efforts in favour of research, in an attempt to hide the real stagnation for global funding (with major changes in the allocation system), and clear reductions in stable jobs in public research. This reduction has become very clear after 2009, and François Hollande now applies very conscientiously the policy of Sarkozy. The latter, inspired by the “excellence initiative” initiated by Germany, has launched in 2010 a similar initiative called “Programme d’investissement d’avenir (PIA)”, for which he has decided a 20 billion euros public loan. However, his government has simultaneously operated a series of cuts, so that the global balance is close to zero; in addition, the mode of attribution of these PIA grants was awfully complex, and has required hundreds of years of equivalent researchers activity to write the projects, fill the forms, and pay consulting firms to write them, so as to fit in the requirements of the “New Public Management“.
Thus, 14 years after the Lisbon treaty, the public effort for research and universities has not changed, but the mode of attribution of this funds and the global organization of research has deeply changed. For each researcher, the time required for obtaining this constant amount of money (compulsory for having the possibility of working) has increased vertiginously.
In what condition are the research laboratories?
Most of them survive. A few of them are rich labs, when their director has been able to accumulate several independent grants … often on the same project. I know one of them who obtained 6 different European grants simultaneously (on each of them, he is supposed to spend 50% of his time; find the error …). But most of them are in a struggle for life. A qualitative change is that, 20 years ago, the research activity was performed in laboratories working as coherent groups, i.e., it was a collective activity. Now, there has been a large increase in individualism, laboratories often function as a collection of small teams, each headed by a PI (principal investigator), assisted by several younger researchers without permanent position. These different team leaders feel themselves as being in a permanent competition with the others, including within the same laboratory. But it is not only in research that individualism has become stronger in the last decade.
What are the future prospects for the next 5-10 years?
The prospects are disastrous if we do nothing, i.e., if we allow the present government to continue the policy started 10 years ago: austerity, shrinking of public services, attempts to reduce pubic research to the part that may have profitable prospects from an economic point of view. This deadly propensity for austerity and short term view an projects may be observed everywhere in Europe, with consequences which may be more or less important depending on the starting point of the economy. Concerning public research, the richest countries still seem to believe in the importance of protecting research, which has consequences for the whole country, its economy, its capacity of independent expertise, even it democratic life. But governments of Southern countries have given up and French politicians have made the worse choices. In fact, French politicians exhibit a high level of ignorance concerning research. One of the reasons is French-specific , and is called the “Grandes Ecoles” system. Parents who believe in excellence and competition above all, and want the best for their children do not send them to universities but to these “Grandes Ecoles” (Polytechnique, Ecole des Mines, Ecole Nationale d’Administration). All the French elite (in economy, politics and high administration) comes from these establishments. In most of them, there is no research activity, thus they have had no research training, but still, they are convinced (aren’t they the elite ?) that they are able to decide for everything and everybody, including for choosing which research questions are important, and which should be abandoned. This system creates major problems in our country, including a marked depreciation of the PhD.
France has decided to give life to “Sciences en marche”, Why it’s so important to demonstrate now and what are you hoping to achieve?
Sciences en Marche is one of the initiatives launched in 2014 for trying to alert the population, the media, the Parliament and the government, on the fact that if we do nothing, our research system will progressively be dismantled. More importantly, with the same type of logic, austerity will increase, deflation would install, public services will get smaller and weaker, and all the country will go straight in the wall. I consider important to struggle for the defense of research not because it would be a question more important than education or health system. It is important because it has a symbolic value, it may have long lasting and large consequences for the future, and its cost is quite modest compared to health or education. And also compared to the major corporate tax reductions that our government has recently decided.
The same type of question exists, to a more or less severe extent, in all European countries. In addition, research has a major international dimension. In these conditions, we can hope that the different national initiatives for the defence of research will converge at the European level. Maybe they will be able to convince the European authorities to find incentives that may push the national governments to boost their respective investments in research.