Marching on the capital

– a personal take on the French #SciencesEnMarche movement

Amélie and the garden gnome

Amélie and the garden gnome

Before I moved to Lyon, my view of France was based primarily on popular media. Looking back at my expectations, I can now report a disappointing lack of obsession with garden gnomes, whereas the myth of exorbitant amounts of dog poo on French streets has proven true. I can’t comment on the quantity and quality of late night porn on national television (supposedly a lot and explicit) since I don’t own a TV. As for endless strikes and protests, after a lackluster year with no major demonstrations, finally something big is happening! Researchers in France are – as someone said on twitter – “doing what the French do best: protesting”. In a movement called Sciences En Marche, scientists from all over the country are cycling, hiking and kayaking towards Paris, protesting against the government’s neglect of science. Reports of the demonstration and the demands have been reported elsewhere (amongst others a detailed write-up in the LabTimes, and also in Science and Nature). So today, having seen Sciences En Marche in action, as the “protests” arrived in Lyon, I’ll share my personal view of things.

SciencesEnMarche in Lyon. The flag of the movement is attached to a Velov bike, an iconic symbol of the city, as Lyon was one of the first towns to adopt a bikesharing system.

Sciences En Marche in Lyon. The flag of the movement is attached to a Vélo’v bike, an iconic symbol of the city, as local scientists join the demonstrators on their way to the city center.

Lets start with money. Two of the main demands of Science En Marche are about funding: First, to reallocate money from tax credits in industry (where they were supposed to encourage R&D) towards academic research. Second, to restructure funding schemes, ensuring more investment into long-term basic research (rather than short-term project-based funding). In line with the request for long-term secure funding, many young scientists are particularly worried about the decreasing number of new permanent positions (down by 25% in the last 4 years), and more senior PIs note that such a trend might easily lead to brain drain. Now, while it is definitely always good and important to fight for better (and more) science funding, these requests ignore two important points:

  • With the economic crisis cuts in science funding have become a global trend (summarized nicely in this piece in Slate), and the French economy in particular is stagnating, with the world looking on doubtfully, whether the government under Francois Hollande will be able to engineer a turnaround.
  • The French academic system is a behemoth, carrying enormous historical baggage, including permanent positions that were established when funding was still plentiful, administrative staff/protocols in desperate need of modernization, and an overly hierarchical, multi-tiered, complex university system.

Given these circumstances, I think it is unrealistic to assume that a mere cash injection (if at all possible, given the economic situation) will resolve the plight of French research – without more major reorganization decline may be prolonged but not avoided. In fact, a recent OECD report (reviewed here and here) also levied heavy criticism at France’s research and innovation systems, and called for dramatic changes if the country wanted to avoid slow scientific decline.

In my opinion many current problems emerge from the strange marriage of historical relics in the system and misguided (or incomplete) attempts at reform. Take, for example, permanent positions vs project-based funding. Personally, I think there’s nothing wrong with project-based funding, as long as the pie is cut into adequately large pieces (ie researchers apply for large sums of multi-year funding), since this can provide both semi-security while ensuring quality control, because scientists need to re-apply after some years. However, I have heard stories of PIs without groups or PIs with permanent staff and no research funding. In terms of output a scientist that is not doing science (for whatever reason) is a dead weight, burdening the system. Yet, because of permanent positions these dead weights linger on. Similarly, as a ghost of times past, there’s a socialist undercurrent, a sense that all research should be equally important and there has to be enough state(!) funding for everyone (note: the proportion of state funding in French research is actually higher than in Germany or the UK). Thus, the pie is cut into tiny slices, so everyone has a chance to get a – albeit tiny – piece. Clearly, noone wants to make the uncomfortable decision to shut down unproductive groups or force certain research directions towards alternative funding sources.

So what about jobs? Obviously, closely linked to the funding problem is the question of jobs, highlighted by the worries about permanent positions and brain drain. My position on this differs from that of my French colleagues: the research hierarchy here is extremely complicated (there’s technicians, engineers, different types of master students, different classes of PhD students, teaching professors…) and at the pinnacle of a given job trajectory there’s always a permanent position with fixed wages and benefits, but little incentive to perform above the necessary duties. I consider this hierarchy a relic of old times, which is totally outdated. Instead of teaching the next generation obsolete standards of occupying your place in the pecking order, it should be recognised that long-term academic performance is judged outside of university walls on an international playing field, and that there is constant re-evaluation and quality control, and that good performance is rewarded! Moreover, moving away from such a rigid hierarchy would allow and encourage scientists to embrace more alternative career paths, such as stints in industry or extended experience abroad (more than 50% of French scientists have never worked more than 3 months abroad!).

French researchers abroad. More than 50% of researchers (post-PhD) have spent less than 3months abroad in the last 10 years (light blue bar), France is indicated by the red arrow. Figure was taken from the 2014 Researchers Report for the ECs Director General for Research and Innovation.

French researchers abroad. More than 50% of researchers (post-PhD) have spent less than 3months abroad in the last 10 years (light blue bar), France is indicated by the red arrow. Figure was taken from the 2014 Researchers Report for the ECs Director General for Research and Innovation.

This is turn could lead to knowledge transfer both between industry and academia, and internationally – which could ultimately boost the economy and result in more money for research. While obviously this will require long-term rethinking of the academic system, I think there is some recognition by Sciences En Marche that initiatives are needed to increase the exchange between industry, administration and academia. In particular, this is highlighted by their third demand to “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).”

Beyond research: outreach. Finally, my favorite part of the Sciences En Marche program is their effort to engage the public and highlight the importance of basic research. Each stop of the tour is accompanied by programs, demonstrations and hands-on stuff. Here in Lyon, this included things like DNA extraction from bananas, pipeting and demonstrating how to separate blood based on density (see below). An effort to engage with the community is something I have largely missed here in France, in part probably because I don’t speak the language, but also, because science and research are more confined to the ivory tower. I do hope that if anything of the Science En Marche program stays it will be a continuing effort to keep up outreach activities and give a public face to science. The time is rife to move out of that Tower!


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