France: ?What We Demand Is That Laboratories Regain the Ability To Self Finance.?
24 May, 2007 05:53 pm
?Sauvons la Recherche? (Save Research) is a group created in March 2003 to fight a dramatic drop in budgets and recruitment decided by the government at that time. We asked its spoke person Betrand Monthubert about his feelings regarding Nicolas Sarkozy?s program, the newly elected center right French president, concerning research and advanced studies.
There is definitely a widely held belief in the importance of research for the future of our country. However, behind this raised awareness there are extremely divergent views on the role research should play. Everyone is in agreement that research will play a role in economic development. The question that truly makes a difference is whether research exists only to respond to that, or whether there is another objective like the development of knowledge.
Nicolas Sarkozyís program contains an additional budget of 4 billion euros for public research. Do you have more insight into the way this sum will be invested?
Exactly, the question is where will this money be injected? Clearly a large part will be reinjected into the ANR (National Research Agency, a funding agency) with of course a will to concentrate the money on a few issues that are a priority now. There is a huge concern over this, because we know that the research needs to be developed in all of the fields of knowledge. Today we cannot foresee which fields will be crucial tomorrow.
We havenít been contacted nor consulted, but since we hadnít been in the past, it wasnít a big surprise. But itís very troubling! Changing the universities in a major way, which is necessary, requires the help of expertise from the main actors. Doing things in secret in ministerial cabinets, and after that, trying to impose them had been tried many times in the past. The reforms had always been blocked. In the end itís the best way to get nothing done. What we are asking for from the new administration is to be in a mind set of concertation with those who teach advanced studies and do research.
Today French public research is quite complex in terms of organization (with institutes like CNRS, the universities, and the ďgrandes écolesĒ). What is your position concerning the necessary reform of the system?
The complexity is awful and it has become unbearable. For three years we have created a multiplicity of structures (ANR, the ďcanceropôles, Ö..). What we are asking for is that the laboratories regain a financial capacity so that they are not forced to go constantly searching for finances in the regional departments, different agencies, and different centers, and at the European level.
Nicolas Sarkozy wishes to give more independence to universities (budgetary independence and the ability to recruit). Are you in favor of this?
What is recruitment capacity? We hear that a president of a university canít recruit the teachers they want. There are two problems with this. The first, creating jobs, and next, choosing the person one wants for a specific position. If itís regarding job creation, then definitely, we canít do it, and I donít know that we could even do it tomorrow. Behind all of this lies a budgetary problem, and not a problem of independence. The second point, deciding who we recruit today, it is within universities that we recruit a teacher-researcher, and itís within the universities that the decision is made.
The issue of independence is behind this, because itís based on what means the university can operate since everyone is in agreement today in saying that the universities are in a catastrophic lack of funding.
The international university ranking (notably the Hong Kong study) does not rate French universities very well. What do you suggest in order to see universities emerge that stand out on the international scene?
That is a complicated question. Definitely, the question of notoriety is a serious one. We have recently proposed the implementation of the ďPRESĒ Ė Pôles de Recherche et díEnseignement Superieur (Advanced Studies Research Centers) which had the objective of assembling, at the regional scale, the universities and the major schools to better define the dividing of roles, and to above all favor the potential of research. Today we have a multiplicity of universities in which there are people that have a capacity to do research, but donít have the means. And that, in two words, is wasteful.
However, vigilance must be paid to the fact that the assigned objectives of the universities is not uniquely to appear at a good position in the international rankings. Itís as simple as responding to the needs of education in the country. One needs to be careful not to fall into a way of thinking where in the name of notoriety one would sacrifice the other mission.
How do you foresee the role of SLR in the next five years?
Our role is to try to explain to the entire country Ė we donít only address to researchers but to the whole population Ė what the problems research is faced with and what possible solutions exist that could resolve them.
We have the feeling that a short term outlook exists in terms of research, but we know that the major challenges are in front of us which will require an effort by research within the sectors havenít been defined today. We will continue to do this pedagogical work vis-à-vis the general public and politicians. If we take on a reform for research founded on a short term outlook, Iím convinced that we will undermine research for tomorrow.
Interview by Clémentine Fullias and Gilles Prigent
Translated by Christopher Le Coq