Friday, March 1, 2013

Guest Post: French Labor Law Threatens Future of French Academic Research

French Politics is pleased to publish the following guest post by David Sassoon, who details objections to a new labor law that will impose hardships on foreigners who come to study in France and seek academic employment there. I share his concerns.

French Labour Law threatens young scientists and the future of French academic research

by David Sassoon, Director

UMR S 787 Inserm
Université de Pierre et Marie Curie-Sorbonne Universités
105 bd de l'Hôpital
75634 - Paris Cedex 13

France will soon enact a new employment law that will have an immense impact upon academic research in France. “The Sauvadet Law’, named after its principle author (1), limits the length of time a temporary contract worker can be employed by a public body. The law directs public institutions to transform a temporary contract into permanent employment by 6 years. Of course, the devil is in the details and there remain many ambiguities as to how interpret years spent in the public domain, therefore the major public research institutions have imposed a 3-year limit for temporary employment to avoid absorbing thousands of postdoctoral fellows and technical staff as permanent employees. There is no agreement from the political right or left as to how to resolve this issue that has already led to the firing of thousands of young scientists with little to no advanced warning and is likely to trigger the firings of thousands more. Charitably viewed, it is an example of good intentions gone bad.

In response to this situation, French scientists have signed a petition (2) to ask for a suspension of the application of the Sauvadet law in the academic research sector.

The major reasons for this request are outlined below:

1-Three years are, in large part, insufficient to obtain a permanent job in academia anywhere in the world. It is impossible to initiate a project, obtain results and have a paper published in a high impact journal. Training abroad is certainly to be encouraged, however it would become the only viable route thereby discriminating against those who choose or need to stay in France for personal reasons.

2-It is unrealistic at a time when governments are looking at budget reductions to imagine that the ranks of civil servants will swell with thousands of young scientists. Given that permanent employment is imposed by the law, the end result will be that young scientists are hired and fired on a routine basis with no real hope for meaningful career advancement. Should the government create thousands of postes similar to what occurred in the early 1980’s, this would solve the problem, but again, this seems unlikely in today’s economic climate.

3-The attractivity of postdoctoral studies in France will be diminished. Foreign scientists would choose not to come to France during their postdoctoral career. In contrast, a young researcher from France can go to other countries for years, which is a win-win situation for both scientist and lab. The young scientist has sufficient time to generate the data and publish high quality papers and the laboratory reaps the benefits of the time investment for training. A French brain drain will begin in earnest.

4-A generation of French scientists will be lost. If a person in France dreams of becoming an academic scientist and has the rare talent to do so, he or she will have to leave the country. Many will be dissuaded from such a career due to an environment that offers little to no promise for their future. Options such as the USA, presently viewed here as harshly Darwinian in nature with prolonged career precarity until the age of 40 will now seem attractive, if not generous, in terms of salary and time afforded to achieve one’s goals.

5-The Sauvadet law will have profound negative mid to long-term economic impact on France. France has to compete harder to maintain prominence in the sectors it used to dominate whereas biotechnology and other emerging sectors hold immense economic promise for those that join the game. Understandably countries such as China and India have invested heavily in biological research ranging from biomaterials to stem cells, but are still far from enjoying the infrastructure of countries such as France. Our best students, trained at immense cost to the public will leave and make their contributions elsewhere and the benefits of France’s investment will be reaped by countries that did not train them. Coupled with the loss of foreign scientists coming to France, the projected economic loss could be staggering. The negative cultural impact is depressing to consider.

It is not the intention of this commentary to make a political statement for or against the government, the unions nor the public institutions, but rather to spell out in simple terms what a 3-year limit to temporary employment will engender in France. We hope that all parties involved will find rapidly a pragmatic solution and in the meantime, suspend the application of the Sauvadet Law in the academic sector until a viable and realistic solution is found.



Sciences Po Picks Its Man

Surprise, surprise. The favorite son of the powers-that-be, Frédéric Mion, has been selected to head Sciences Po, replacing the late Richard Descoings. The FNSP preferred him by 24 votes to 1 over Jean-Michel Blanquer, a candidate who had previously been excluded from the short list of finalists for the job. Blanquer was brought back into the picture after one of the chosen finalists, Louis Vogel, withdrew his candidacy, alleging that the process was rigged and that the selection committee was ignoring its own stated criteria. The third finalist, the American Andrew Wachtel, received no votes, lending some credence to Vogel's allegation that the outcome was wired from the start.

Mion is not in, however, until the government approves this choice. Since the previous selectee was rejected, it is by no means certain that the government will go along, except that yet another round in this melee is likely to open the process to even more ridicule and animosity that it has already aroused.

Here is a tick-tock of the events leading up to today's vote.

Abu Zeid Killed

The Mali operation continues to go France's way. Abu Zeid, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, was apparently killed by French forces in recent days, along with 43 of his men.

François Hollande is no doubt grateful for the news, since he hasn't been faring as well on the domestic front. Still, the political "bounce" from the African intervention seems limited.