News & Views item - February 2009



French Researchers Honour Their Threat and Strike. (February 5, 2009)

Despite the threat of an indefinite strike by the unions representing France's researchers to begin February 2nd, French President Nicholas Sarkozy's government said it planned to vigorously pursue implementing the science and higher education reforms it promised. President Sarkozy didn't assist his cause by referring to the nation's researchers as "infantilizing" and "paralysing for creativity and innovation" and implying French researchers were fainéants (layabouts) with cushy jobs, and no match for their British counterparts.


And so as promised, came February 2nd strike they did.


To be fair, as Nature points out in one of today's editorials: "To their credit, Sarkozy and his science minister, Valérie Pécresse, have pushed through much-needed modernizations. These include putting universities on the road to independence from the centralized administration, giving them badly needed cash, and injecting a healthy dose of grants awarded on the basis of competitive proposals (see Nature 453, 133; 2008).


However, as matters stand "even top researchers who support the broad thrust of the reforms complain that their advice is being ignored, and that many changes seem as though they are being imposed by technocrats seeking grandiose institutional rearrangements as ends in themselves".


Unless the French government seeks a rapprochement there will be an extended impasse. Perhaps science minister Pécresse will have the diplomatic skills her boss lacks to begin the reforms needed, but so far those observing from outside say it is not a processed that can be rushed through.


An article written by Declan Butler in the same issue of Nature makes the point that the changes the government wants to introduce will include "evaluations of university researchers contributions to teaching and university governance, and not be based solely on their research. Universities will also be given the power to change how much time staff spend on teaching and research". But the researchers "fear that cash-strapped universities might cut research time and force them to do more teaching, at a time when posts are being cut".


It's true that Ms Pécresse has assured researchers that there would be national safeguards put in place for university promotion decisions and that limits would be placed on their teaching loads, but clearly the scientists have their doubts. So for example, Mr Butler reports: "'I don't believe we can change any country's research system so quickly [as the French government wants],' says one CNRS official, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals. That's particularly true in France, he says, where most universities have been neglected for decades, and have focused on teaching large numbers of students, with most of the research being done by the agencies."


And that view is supported by Philippe Froguel, a French scientist who heads the genomic medicine department at Imperial College London, who told Mr Butler that he is fully in favour of plans to "responsibly transform" French universities. But, he says, apart from rare major research universities... most French universities are far from ready for full autonomy. They have little experience in managing human resources and research programs compared with the national research agencies.


Added February 6, 2009


The Guardian reports today: "Thousands of French university lecturers took to the streets today amid violent clashes as part of a growing "unlimited" strike movement against government higher education reform plans... In total, an estimated 45% of classes are affected across the country, with unions claiming that more than one in two lecturers are not working... Industrial action is expected to continue in higher education, with unlimited strikes carrying on and a national demonstration scheduled in Paris next Tuesday [February 10]."