Wednesday, May 21, 2008

CNRS

Valérie Pécresse, after a long absence from the headlines, is back with a plan to reform the CNRS. A lot of attention is paid to the organization chart, rather less to the budget--in public, at least. In private, of course, who sits where has a lot to do with who gets what. And who gets what is the heart of the matter, as the watchdog group Sauvons la Recherche has begun to elucidate in a series of articles entitled "Le budget de la recherche raconté à Sarkozy." It would be hard to overstate how much is at stake in this reform. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that France's competitive position in the future will depend on the quality of its efforts in higher education and R&D. Society's self-knowledge, and therefore its ability to govern itself wisely, depends on the quality of its research in the historical and social sciences. This isn't a left-right issue, although Left and Right have different approaches and priorities, not to say instincts, about various subsidiary questions. Nevertheless, broad areas of compromise should be possible.

1 comment:

Timur Friedman said...

Sauvons la Recherche is overly focused on the need to increase research funding. While more money is always welcome, unless there is a good plan on how to spend it, we will not see the improvements that France hopes for.

To take one example: should France increase researchers' salaries? One reason that the research budget is low is that researchers (CNRS, university faculty, etc.) are paid on the modest civil service pay scale, without any merit pay. Raising salaries would no doubt help on the margins: retaining some talented researchers who would otherwise go abroad and drawing in some talent from other countries. But a more effective use of money, in my opinion, would be to liberate large numbers of existing researchers from non-research tasks. University faculty have very little flexibility in reducing their 192 hour statutory teaching load even if they are heavily invested in research; in principle, they cannot even hire graders to help them mark papers and exams! Top universities do not have support staff to help faculty apply for and administer research grants. Speaking from personal experience at a top university-CNRS joint laboratory, we have one secretary for our research group of a dozen faculty.

Sadly, I do not see much public discussion of what the concrete problems are or debate on how best to address them.