Nature on research funding in France

Because I published recently in a Nature-branded journal (Zhou et al, 2019), Nature Publishing Group offered me one year of free subscription to Nature and I now receive its printed edition every week. This is how I came to read a news article in February about academic research funding policy in France (Casassus, 2019). It seemed a little bit inaccurate, and prompted me to send a correspondence to the journal. Since this correspondence did not get published, I am posting it here instead.

The state of academic research funding in France

Barbara Casassus recently published an article about France’s first national research strategy (Nature 566, 164; 2019), highlighting the promises of “funding stability and better career prospects for young scientists”. I want to point out two things. First, this is not the “first national strategy”: academic research in France used to be stably funded by the government before transitioning to a competitive application system in 2005 with the creation of the Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR). The ANR’s budget steadily decreased between 2008 and 2018, eventually making its funding rate lower than that of the European Research Council, in contradiction with the ANR’s role as a national funding agency. Second, the number of permanent positions open every year at the CNRS has also steadily decreased in recent years. In 2019, there will be 50 fewer positions open than in 2018. In parallel, the Ministry of Higher Education and Research announced that 300 more PhD scholarships will be awarded this year. Many French scientists, including myself, think this is a short-sighted move. Although 300 3-year scholarships are cheaper than 50 PhD-level permanent researcher positions, this will likely fuel the brain drain. To keep young researchers in the country, French academic research needs stable funding and permanent positions. A collective of concerned researchers met the Minister of Higher Education and Research, backed by more than 12,000 signatures on a petition demanding that these 50 positions be kept in the 2019 budget (http://rogueesr.fr/etiolement-du-cnrs-english/). These would cost €5 million per year, about a thousand times less than the €6 billion tax credit given every year to private research companies in recent years. The Minister told the collective that the government will not change course on these 50 positions or its strategy for academic research funding in general. I felt readers of Nature ought to know this reality, which was only very elusively hinted at by Barbara Casassus’ article.

References

Casassus B (2019) France set to get first national strategy for research. Nature 566: 164. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-00484-4

Zhou K, Gaullier G & Luger K (2019) Nucleosome structure and dynamics are coming of age. Nature Structural & Molecular Biology 26: 3–13. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41594-018-0166-x