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In search of a law for Research

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The situation of French research and its loss of attractiveness are cause for alarm. Emblematically, the "misery" of the young researcher, the one he or she experiences after recruitment, whether in a research organisation or in a university, represents one of the greatest weaknesses of the current system. Last January, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced a multi-year programming law on research for 2020, the "PPR" law. In a summary accessible to all, the Academy of Sciences publishes its recommendations. Will the future "PPR" law provide the means to change the situation?
 
L’Academy of Sciences a expressed, on several occasions, his deep concern about the "misery" of young researchers: an unworthy starting salary, a total lack of financial support that would provide the means for the research for which he was recruited... raising the problem of the attractiveness of scientific jobs and careers, but also that of the funding of laboratories and their competitiveness. Under the responsibility of the Ministry of Higher Education and Research, working groups have been set up and a call for proposals, reflections and suggestions has been issued to the entire scientific community and stakeholders in the world of research to change this situation, with the creation of an new actcalled "PPR".

Danger of capping research funding

Over the last ten years, the landscape of French research and higher education has changed considerably and a new dynamic has been set in motion. These changes concern, for the most part, the structuring of higher education and research funding methods. They have resulted in the merging of institutions into larger structures with greater autonomy (law on university autonomy), an increased share of funding for projects and calls for tenders, and notorious efforts in the area of technology transfer. In general, these changes have gone in the right direction.
 
However, the level of research funding has levelled off for more than twenty years at around 2.2% of GDP... far behind those, for example, of Germany, Korea and the United States, above 3%. Public spending on funding has been decreasing - slightly but steadily - for several years (0.8% in 2016) and private spending is only slightly - but steadily - increasing (1.4% in 2016).
Let us be clear: no recovery will be achieved without a significant and rapid increase in the research budget. However, the future law on multiannual programming for research cannot be limited to budgetary aspects alone: it must also open up a perspective on a new dynamic for greater excellence, relevance and attractiveness. France could usefully draw inspiration from certain selective, but attractive and effective dynamics at work abroad. To achieve this, the Academy states in his report several major recommendations regarding funding, recruitment and technology transfer. 
 

More state involvement

Firstly, it is the direct responsibility of the State to adjust the public share of public research funding to reach a level of around 1% of GDP and thus bring France into line with the major research countries, with which it must be able to compare itself. This target corresponds to an increase of 0.2%, or EUR 7 billion. It must be achievable very quickly.
The public funding system is based on two complementary channels: funding agencies on the one hand, and allocations to research institutions on the other. As various reports (OPECST, Senate, etc.) have already recommended, the budget of the National Research Agency should be doubled to 1.5 billion euros, mainly to finance basic, "white" or thematic research projects.
In addition, research establishments must be given back sufficient funding to enable them to develop their own scientific policy: basic laboratory appropriations, support for young researchers, promotion of scientific development and risk-taking, teaching discharges in universities, host positions in organisations, etc. The allocation of all these resources must of course take account of scientific assessments.

Changing the status of researchers

As regards the recruitment of researchers and teacher-researchers, the Academy foresees two possible developments. The first one could, quite classically, combine a civil servant recruitment and a system of bonuses, capable of increasing the researchers' entry salary. The latter should, at the very least, correspond to that currently attributed to a European postdoctoral researcher, in the order of €55,000 gross per year.
But to serve a more agile research, the choice could also be made to rethink the system more thoroughly. It would then seem essential to be able to offer contracts of the permanent contract type. These would be a major factor in the attractiveness and responsiveness of our research establishments.

Technology transfer too complex

The third major area to be addressed is technology transfer. The current system has become too complex. It needs to be simplified by integrating into research and higher education institutions, within the framework of the law on autonomy, the myriad of development structures that have emerged in recent years.
More specifically, the Academy recommends that the Institutes for Technological Research (IRT) and the Institutes for Energy Transition (ITE) be entrusted to universities and that they be encouraged to develop technological research departments worthy of the name.
Similarly, the SATTs (Société d'Accélération de Transfert de Technologie) should be integrated into the universities and become mutualized technology transfer departments of the local ecosystem by changing their legal status. Finally, in any case, it seems essential to no longer link the objectives of the structures/departments to the sole capacity of self-financing through patent revenues.
 
Could this new "PPR" law be an opportunity to be seized to restore France's attractiveness and scientific production to the highest level? It could be an opportunity to demonstrate our country's capacity to be a great scientific and technological nation, which advances knowledge and common knowledge in the service of humanity, and to develop an economy based on innovation. France deserves it. So do its researchers.
 
Source : Pascale Cossart and Étienne Ghys, Permanent Secretaries of the Academy of Sciences

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