Opinion- 30 April 2010

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12 Years and Counting



pdf file-available from Australasian Science


The silver blonde dropped by the office waving two pieces of correspondence from the same guy, published in Nature, but 12-years apart.


"Why show me," I asked.


"I think they're relevant to Australian Academe; it's just that in the French case the situation is more blatant."


The correspondence are from Klaus Scherrer who in 1998 was Directeur de Recherche, CNRS, Paris, Institut Jacques Monod and in 2010 is emeritus and still at the Institut Jacques Monod. His 1998 note, titled "French reforms should go further" opens with:


Your coverage of the proposed reforms of French university and medical research (INSERM) and, in particular, the resistance of the universities, INSERM and CNRS to the changes... does not mention the main factor at stake. and then continues: Les grandes écoles are just the tip of an iceberg of overlapping circles of influence at all levels that, as in many other professions, are an overwhelming preoccupation of French scientists and professors.


Professor Scherrer then says that the mere fact of being at a grande école increases by a factor of about ten the chance of being 'selected' at the Pasteur Institute. 'Grande école ' [and it] not only means being taught by an elite of professors, after up to three years of painstaking preparative classes to pass admission exams, but also is the chance to win the race for a place that gives security for life: a salary up to the end of studies and thereafter the protection of the 'old-timer' club.


As for research funding: Meeting in Paris, the same people distribute nationwide positions and money on an annual basis, and also judge research, with no direct input from independent or foreign experts. In the worst case, this leads to in-house intellectual censorship which is why, in the life sciences at least, much of the originality of research is crippled. Since there is no time for in-depth analysis, anyone with an unconventional idea is easily considered a pretentious crackpot — unless supported by a 'patron' accepted within the system. Originality and international recognition have little value within the corporate system...


Of course gradual change is necessary, but attacking just les grandes écoles is only paying lip-service to the problem. [what are needed are] site visits every three to four years, allowing enough time (and means) to justify a project without interference, and done by independent specialists, at least 30% of whom should be from outside France.


Professor Scherrer did hold out some hope, concluding in his 1998 correspondence: "Some successful attempts at such a system are already functioning, for example the ATIPE boards of the CNRS, which fund young laboratory leaders."


However, 12-years later his note is titled "French research also being stifled by autocracy", and now approaching 80 he writes:


Your Editorial 'Scientific glasnost' (Nature 464, 141–142; 2010) highlights parochial anachronisms in the Russian Academy of Sciences that are obstructing the development of a knowledge-based economy. Russia is not alone: science in France has been experiencing similar problems... French politicians do not seem to have properly understood that research is crucial for an efficient economy... in 2006 France spent only about 2.1% of GNP on research and development — a proportion more typical of a developing country.


The old French devils of centralism, dirigisme and corporatism in politics and science still prevail... The recently acquired autonomy of local universities is being undermined by plans for their fusion into super-universities... Patience is necessary in Russia, where problems may be explained by the country's recent history. The failure of present-day France to comprehend the issues and implement the policies necessary for economic success is more dangerous and distressing.


"Hang on a bit," I said, "this next part isn't relevant to Australia.":  CNRS, has about 30,000 members and was once an independent agency, relatively successful in basic research. It is now being suffocated by integration into a university system that has shown little competence in managing top-level research.


"Point taken," she agreed, "but I reckon the devils of centralism, dirigisme and corporatism in politics and science still prevail have considerable local relevance, as well as in 2006 France spent only about 2.1% of GNP on research and development — a proportion more typical of a developing country.


She then dropped her final black pearl: "Check this out, of the group of OECD nations Australia is a low tax country — the eighth lowest, has the third lowest expenditure relative to GDP, and all the while the federal coalition sound like a tragic Greek chorus while Labor squirms and vital knowledge infrastructure, both animate and inanimate languishes; it's pathetic."



By OECD standards Australia is a low tax country — the eighth lowest.

Australia is also a low expenditure country — the third lowest in the OECD.


 a. Data for Mexico and Turkey not available.
 b. Revenue refers to receipts of tax and non tax revenue.

Source: OECD (2008).


Alex Reisner

The Funneled Web