Sciences en Marche

(October 3rd, 2014) Researchers from all over France are marching on Paris (by bicycle) to call for urgently needed funding of their crumbling research system. Jeremy Garwood reports.



French research has been in upheaval for some time. Over the last two decades, a succession of governments have been cutting research budgets and introducing often chaotic reforms (see LT 01/2008 and LT 02/2008).
 
Public research and higher education was particularly hard-hit by major reforms imposed under the Sarkozy government (2007-2012). On the one hand, the funding of research based on an equally spread recurrent budget of laboratories was largely eliminated to bring in project grants, whose politically-motivated criteria discriminated against fundamental research in favour of anything that could claim to have economic goals (e.g. ‘this discovery may one day result in a therapeutic treatment…’). On the other hand, French universities were told to become self-administering entities with reduced government funding.

As reported previously in Lab Times, there have been protest movements organised to call attention to the plight of science in France – notably Sauvons la Recherche (SOS Research) and Sauvons l’Universite (SOS University). The protests at university reforms eventually resulted in a long-running university strike in 2009 that finally ended with largely empty promises of renewed funds.
 
This is why there were such big hopes in 2012 when Francois Hollande was elected President with a socialist government. The socialists had promised they would finally stop the reforms and restore essential funding levels (see LT 07/2012).

Unfortunately, despite holding a series of public consultations (‘Assises’) with researchers in 2012, the subsequent 2 years have proved very disappointing. Far from changing research policy as had been indicated prior to their election, the Hollande government has largely maintained the controversial measures inherited from the Sarkozy era.

Faced with crumbling budgets, disillusioned and demoralised personnel, French researchers have now organised a nationwide march on Paris to try to raise public awareness of their plight: “Our research and university system is in crisis. Our best students give their best years during post-docs in foreign labs and then we get rid of them. The government says it is maintaining funding, but it needs to increase it.” Patrick Lemaire, director of research at the Centre for Macromolecular Biochemistry in Montpellier, told Liberation. Although his own lab is currently well-financed, Lemaire helped launch Sciences en Marche because of the “disarray of my younger colleagues” at the employment situation, the “growing disaffection for scientific and academic careers, and the financial difficulties of many teams and universities”.

 

‘A society of unprecedented complexity that neglects science.’

 

The idea for Sciences en Marche dates from a meeting-debate in June 2014 in Montpellier. This local association soon became a national ‘Sciences en Marche’ with 20 regional committees, a logo, and even a smart explanatory cartoon strip.

They say that in research laboratories and university departments, the situation is becoming impossible. “Many researchers no longer have the means to work efficiently. The generalised use of short-term contracts linked to the weakness of industrial job openings in many disciplines, has served to discourage youth from studies and training in research.” However, it requires many years to acquire the understanding and methodology to do research. Therefore, the associations warns that the current situation will have heavy consequences in the long-term, “whatever our jobs”, on the production of knowledge, on the economic activity of the country in the very competitive international context and in the wider context, upon the democratic culture that is maintained by the critical thinking processes developed through research.

Science en Marche have focussed their protest on 3 main points, measures they say are necessary to reverse this tendency:

  • Establish an ambitious plan for long-term employment at all levels of research and higher education. (Recent governments have opted for research funding through competitive short-term contracts and a massive reliance on short-term employment. In June, France’s national committee for scientific research itself issued a call for action to obtain a change in government policy, especially to stop the ‘haemorrhage’ of trained young researchers, engineers and technicians who are dismissed from labs at the end of their short-term employment contracts.)
  • Increase the basic funding of laboratories and universities. (There has been a move to totally reorganise higher education, concentrating the research effort in a small number of places. By cutting the traditional recurrent basic funding of all labs and insisting that they compete for short-term project grants, those that fail to obtain a grant simply cannot function even if they have secure long-term jobs.)
  • Recognise the status of a doctorate (PhD) in employment pay scales (in order to facilitate the employment of researchers in industry and the highest levels of public administration). (Incredibly, the PhD degree qualification is still not formally recognised in some areas of French government service.)

 

Redirect Industry’s Research Tax Credits

 

To refinance French research and higher education, there are continuing demands that the government reduce the research tax credit (CIR), which ballooned under Sakozy from around €500 millions a year to €6 billion in 2014. Although this measure was originally intended to encourage R&D in the private sector, it has been widely criticised as a ‘fiscal present’ for France’s largest companies that do not necessarily support R&D.

They propose to redirect €2 billion euros a year away from these tax credits into public research and higher education. This could bring 20 billion euros over 10 years, representing an increase of the current budget of 8%. (The French government budget for public research and higher education is currently around €26 billion a year).

However, Sciences en Marche says that they also need to “go to the general public and increase their awareness of the financial problems in the fields of higher education and research, let them know what we actually do, the impact of research on society, and to publicize the difficulties that young researchers have to find a job”.

“We must convince the public that research and higher education plays an important role both in the economic activity and the political thinking of our country. It must be supported. This educational campaign, aimed at the general public, must continue. We must give our citizens the time to understand why we are protesting. Our mobilization should include university academics, researchers from the public and private sectors, and innovative companies.”

 

The ways to Paris, by bicycle and on foot

 

The big march on Paris has been timed to coincide with the yearly, government-sponsored, ‘Fête de la Science’ (‘festival of science’). The 22nd Fête runs from 26th September to 19th October). The marchers want to contrast the government-sponsored images of French science with the reality of their working conditions.

The march started on 26th September, when a first group descended from the observatory at France’s highest research centre – the astrophysics laboratory perched on the summit of the Pic du Midi (2872m) and headed north towards Toulouse. Researchers will mostly cycle between university towns although the marine biology lab in Roscoff (Brittany) will also be using kayaks. 75 cyclists left Marseille on the 27th September for their first leg towards Aix-en-Provence; 250 cyclists left Montpellier to go towards Nîmes on the 28th.

The main routes are:  Marseille - Aix - Montpellier - Grenoble – Lyon – Dijon;
Toulouse – Limoges - Clermont – Poitiers; Bordeaux – Angoulème - Poitiers
Nantes –Tours; Brest – Rennes - Le Mans; and Strasbourg-Nancy.

Each step involves press conferences, public presentations, and scientific demonstrations that allow the researchers to explain their work and their role in society. The last steps of the march - the grand arrival in Paris on 17th October - will be on foot, ending at the National Assembly, where the marchers’ grievances will be presented to the government.

Sciences en Marche has received formal support from over a dozen universities, more than 100 research labs, and more than 3000 adherents.

Jeremy Garwood

Photo: J. Garwood




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