The French government has unveiled its Pact for Research, a new draft bill intended to give French research a new impetus, after nearly 2 years of protests and consultations with the scientific community. But, although one of the five targets identified by the government is to make scientific careers more attractive, young scientists feel disappointed with the bill's specifics.

"Our reaction is largely negative," says Jean-François Moyen, a French geologist on a postdoc in South Africa, on behalf of the Sauvons la Recherche--Jeunes Chercheurs ( SLR-JC) Association. "Indeed, there are some good aspects--a little bit of money here, some possibilities for reduced teaching duties there. Altogether however, this proposition will have little if any impact for young researchers." And even that little impact depends on the bill eventually becoming law.

A Bit of Background

The need for some sort of effort to reform the academic system in France became apparent in 2003, when the government announced a reduction in the number of permanent research positions and the creation of more short-term contracts. "Researchers' unrest had been long brewing, largely because of chronically deficient funding and staffing; this was the last straw," says Moyen. Among the researchers' protests was a petition letter signed by some 75,000 researchers and extensively supported by the French population as a whole.

The French scientific community mobilised in the so-called Etats Generaux de la Recherche, a national consultation in which early-career scientists and other interested parties reflected on the situation of French research and came up with a wish list for the government. SLR-JC and an umbrella organisation of 35 local associations of young scientists in France, the Confédération des Jeunes Chercheurs ( CJC), took part in the national consultation. A consensus statement was presented to the government in October 2004. After several missed deadlines and a leaked draft that was met with heavy criticisms from the scientific community, the draft legislation--and a 2005-07 budget of 6 milliards euros more than in 2004--have finally been announced.

Young Scientists' Requests and Bill Proposals

Although not all of their requests made it into the consensus report of the scientific community, young scientists have a pretty good idea of all the changes they would like to see in the French system.

Ph.D. Funding

Central to both the SLR-JC and CJC recommendations were improvements in the funding situation of Ph.D. candidates. In France, the best way to fund a Ph.D. is to get an allocation de recherche--in effect, a salary paid by the government as part of a 3-year contract--or a Convention Industrielle de Formation par la Recherche ( CIFRE)--a contract given by a company and partly funded by the government to work within the industry. A far less popular--yet very common--alternative is the libéralités, grants from various bodies that do not come with the social benefits (such as pension and medical insurance) a contract confers. CJC estimates that more than half of all Ph.D. candidates don't receive any financial support.

In the draft bill, the government promises to bring the number of Ph.D. candidates on libéralités down by 2007 and to increase to 4500 the number of allocated CIFRE contracts by 2010. Also under the draft bill, Allocataires de recherche would receive 8% salary increases in January 2006 and again in January 2007. Young researchers would welcome a salary rise, but these increases would only partly make up for losses to inflation over the last 30 years. "Initially, in 1976, [ Allocataires de recherche] were created to attract people for a Ph.D., and they were 50% more than the minimum salary," says Cécile Frolet, a molecular biology Ph.D. candidate at Strasbourg, on behalf of CJC. "Today, we are paid 5% less than this minimum."

The Ph.D. as a Professional Experience

Both associations deplored the fact that Ph.D. candidates in France are often treated as perpetual students and not as young professionals. The government partly addressed these concerns by proposing more contracts and fewer libéralités, but Frolet would like to see better recruitment procedures, with a definite project, funding, and supervisor, along with regular evaluations--which she says is not always the case in France. But there was no mention of any of this in the draft bill.

A Monitoring Body for the Career Outcome of Ph.D.s

The draft legislation does, however, call for the creation of a monitoring body to gather information on the professional progression of Ph.D. holders after graduation. This information would be used to anticipate the need for Ph.D.s in the different disciplines and adjust Ph.D. funding accordingly. "It's been several years we have been asking for figures, and we are happy to see that it'll now be possible to know better what young researchers become," says Frolet.

More Opportunities Within Academia

A common concern among young scientists in many countries is the lack of permanent academic positions. In France, the problem is further complicated by the fact that young scientists are supposed to get a permanent position straight after their Ph.D. Postdoctoral positions are few in France, and most short-term contract positions are as an Attaché Temporaire d´Enseignement et de Recherche ( ATER), the terms of which are not attractive for researchers. "Considering that [an ATER position] is only 1 year and carries a large amount of teaching, and that no research money is attached to it, this is effectively a period during which research is difficult to impossible to achieve," says Moyen.

"We proposed that these positions should be transformed into real, 2- to 3-year postdocs devoted to research and coming with some research funding," says Moyen. But the draft legislation would significantly increase the number of ATER contracts. "This is certainly not a good move. From the researcher's point of view, ATERs are certainly among the least attractive postdoctoral offers in the market."

More in line with what young researchers really want is the government's commitment to create, in 2006, 3000 additional posts for researchers. Although these young scientists welcome the initiative, they remain dubious, because the draft legislation isn't specific about how many of these posts will go to researchers and maîtres de conferences, given that engineers and administrative staff are also included. The bill also states that all existing permanent positions that become vacant in the next 5 years will be filled, but whether these will be replaced by permanent scientists or filled by ATERs or postdocs remains to be seen, says Moyen.

SLR-JC has called for a reform of the recruitment process both in academia and public research institutes such as the National Centre for Scientific Research. Institutions routinely conduct interviews without preselection, which means that interviewees sometimes are given as little as 10 minutes each. "There is little space for real reflection on the [employer's] needs ... and the best candidate [for] meeting them," says Moyen. Another issue is that entry-level positions do not reward experience accumulated between the Ph.D. and a permanent position.

"You get the same salary if you are recruited just after your Ph.D. or after years of research abroad." This problem recently became more troubling for young researchers when CNRS lifted their age limit of 31 for applying for an entry-level CR2 ( chargé de recherche) permanent position. They fear that this will push up the age of the first permanent position even further. "We suggested that a limit could be placed on CR2 positions in terms of experience, such as a maximum of 6 years after the beginning of a Ph.D.," says Moyen. These issues were not addressed by the draft bill.

Improved Working Conditions Within Academia

SLR-JC was also keen to see a move in favour of a better recognition of nonresearch activities in career advancement. Administrative and teaching duties, they argue, are an integral part of the work of research scientists, so these activities should be rewarded. Even though this was not directly tackled in the bill, the government promised an increase in the number and sometimes amount of the salary bonuses given for doctoral supervision and teaching, and for other duties that benefit the department and the institution.

The government also proposed to reduce the teaching duties of new Maîtres de Conférences--the equivalent of an assistant professorship in the United States--by as much as half for their first 2 or 3 years, which would allow these scientists to concentrate on their research. Finally, the draft bill includes a new funding programme, the "Descartes Fellowships," that would reward between 100 and 150 of the best young researchers with approximately 60% more money than the lowest wage over the award's 5-year duration.

More Opportunities Within Industry

Young scientists also would like to see more opportunities opening within industry. So does the government, which has announced in the draft bill the goal of having two-thirds of new Ph.D. graduates obtain a permanent job at a company within 3 years of obtaining their diploma, by 2010. In addition to creating more CIFRE contracts, the government will put in place new incentives for companies such as funding and tax relief to meet this ambitious target.

It remains to be seen whether the draft bill will become law in anything like its current form, but for now, both Moyen and Frolet feel that their proposals were not taken seriously. "Most of our propositions were relatively inexpensive yet had some potential for actually changing things: clarifying the Ph.D. candidates' status, turning ATERs into real postdocs, renovating the hiring procedures, taking into account all aspects of the workload in academic staff's evaluation," says Moyen. "All this needed not so much money as political will, and none of this has been even considered. We'll be doing our best to push the government to include at least some changes in the future law."

 

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for Europe.