Reposted from Science Magazine, 26 August 2005

French researchers are debating the pros and cons of having a National Science Foundation of their own.

PARIS--"Une petite revolution" is how one French newspaper recently described the new National Research Agency ( ANR) that in October will start handing out money to research groups across the country. Its modus operandi--selecting research projects based on scientific excellence--is standard elsewhere in the world. But in France, where funds are traditionally given in block grants to institutions and labs and then distributed to individuals, and where being a scientist often means having a lifetime government job, the notion is revolutionary.

It's also controversial. Many researchers worry that ANR, with a starting annual budget of €350 million ($420 million) that's set to grow rapidly, will eventually cannibalize vaunted government strongholds of French science such as the much larger National Center for Scientific Research ( CNRS) and the similar-sized National Institute for Health and Medical Research ( INSERM ). Moreover, some say that the agency--modeled on long-established outfits like the U.S. National Science Foundation and the German Research Foundation--introduces a type of personal competition that simply isn't right for France. "We have a different organization," says Edouard Brézin, president of the French Academy of Sciences. "One shouldn't simply copy models from abroad without thinking." Even researchers who welcome the idea of spicing up research with a bit of competition fear that ANR, operating with a minuscule staff and zero tradition, won't measure up to the quality standards of the foreign examples it seeks to emulate.

Those concerns don't seem to bother the agency's director, Gilles Bloch. What counts, says the 44-year-old biophysicist and physician, is that the research community has responded overwhelmingly. With almost all of ANR's first 35 calls for proposals now closed, some 5300 applications have poured in on topics such as biotechnology and CO2 capture and storage. More than 600 researchers volunteered to be reviewers. About a quarter of the proposals will receive awards. ANR, Bloch says, "is clearly going to be an important new factor in French science."

Grand strategy
ANR, whose goal is to make research more dynamic, promote excellence, and give young people more opportunities, is part of a larger plan that's still in the works. In February as debate flared up around a major reform bill, the government decided to go ahead and create the new agency under a temporary legal structure ( Science). Researchers are still waiting to see the bill, now promised for the fall.

The concept isn't really a break with tradition, Bloch insists: ANR takes the place of two funds, now dissolved, which doled out money on a project-by-project basis: the National Fund for Science and the Fund for Technological Research. They reported directly to the ministry of research, however, and both were widely suspected of being subservient to politics. Besides having a much more generous budget, ANR will be autonomous in selecting grantees.

Bloch says he looked closely at examples in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany in planning ANR, which he joined early this year after 3 years at a high-level job at the research ministry. But the French agency has some key differences. Scientists receiving ANR money will have to be on the payroll of one of the research institutes or universities, for instance. ANR grants--some half a million euros on average--can be used to help hire a postdoc or technician and pay for instruments or supplies, but they don't pay a researcher's salary. In addition, ANR staff, currently just 30, will be kept well below 100 and will take care only of overall management and quality control. Running the funding programs, including the peer-review process, will be contracted out to research organizations and universities.

Some researchers doubt whether such a small, central organization can judge so much science. The frantic handling of the first wave of proposals--necessary because rules dictated that the initial budget, the result from privatizations, had to be spent this year--doesn't bode well, says cell biologist Bruno Goud of the Curie Institute in Paris. A member of one of ANR's scientific councils, he had to help recruit reviewers for stacks of proposals submitted in the large "nonthematic" program. "It was pretty messy," says Goud. (Finding someone to review a proposal about the sexual life of oysters on short notice was a particular challenge, he recalls.) Still, the agency is a step in the right direction, he emphasizes: "Maybe it will work better next year."

Others have been less charitable. Brézin, who co-chaired a committee last year that organized a 6-month national debate about the future of French science, says he and many others in the research community "were never opposed to the principle" of awards based on merit. But the government seems intent on using the agency as a way to attack established research agencies such as CNRS and INSERM, he says.

Many agree that these flagships of French science can be overly bureaucratic and unwelcoming to new ideas, and that it takes too long before young researchers are allowed to form their own research group. (Former research minister Claude Allègre recently called them "Soviet-style" institutes.) Last fall, scientists reached a consensus at a meeting in Grenoble for stricter evaluations, fewer rules, and more money, among other reforms. Creating a large new agency, however, was not on the list, says Brézin.

Brézin and others also fear that ANR may soon outgrow the other funding agencies: The government has promised a budget hike of €240 million next year, or 68%, and a copy of the reform bill leaked in January pegged ANR's eventual budget at €1.5 billion--and its effect would be multiplied because it doesn't have to pay researchers' salaries. If this comes to pass, "we will have one giant and a lot of dwarfs," says Alain Trautmann, the public face of Sauvons la Recherche, a protest movement that brought thousands of researchers onto the streets last year to protest cutbacks in research funding. Trautmann worries that the Anglo-Saxon–style focus on individual competition will put researchers under enormous pressure and isn't convinced that it will lead to more creativity.

Bloch, who worked as a visiting scientist at Yale University in the early 1990s, says he admires the dynamism of American science but isn't a fan of the stress it creates, either. The French situation, he notes, is very different: Job security isn't at stake here, and INSERM and CNRS aren't under siege. But he believes that the country's scientists must learn to compete more at home if they want to remain competitive internationally. "We can stay as we are," he says, "and say that the rest of the world should be more like France. But that won't help us."