In the week of the first round of France’s presidential elections, Nature takes a unique 9-page look at what the incoming president will mean for French research. Segolene Royal, Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Bayrou, the only contenders in the race who might ultimately win the presidency, go into unprecedented detail on their plans for French science and technology in response to Nature’s questions.
Under Chirac, successive conservative governments have unsuccessfully sought to impose ill-considered reform packages on scientists with little consultation. It hasn’t helped that they have cut budgets at the same time. The French left has traditionally been more supportive of science, but has been unwilling to engage in the reforms that are needed to boost scientific performance.
In our survey of the candidates’ views, Sarkozy perhaps articulates the need for reform most clearly. He proposes the transformation of the research agencies â€” whose labs currently perform the majority of French research â€” into research councils that would fund labs within a powerful and autonomous university system.
Appealing as that sounds, it is essentially the same reform programme that Chirac and successive conservative governments supported but failed to implement. Many of Sarkozy’s science advisers are familiar from earlier administrations. The campaign rhetoric of every conservative government over the past quarter-century has been to declare research a ‘national priority’, only to change its tune once elected. Chirac, for example, promised in 2002 that the “commitment to research must be historic”, only to make harsh cuts that provoked historic street demonstrations.
Bayrou is a relatively unknown quantity to the research community. In his responses to our questions, he avoids talk of wholesale change, promising instead that a cross-party, non-partisan consensus could be found on pragmatic improvements to the existing system. His comments strike the right tone, although it remains unclear how Bayrou’s small centrist party could form a government.
Royal seems likely, at least, to keep her funding promises. She introduced science and education into the heart of her campaign, and her commitment to both seems genuine. The danger, as always with the left in France, is that she will baulk at any meaningful reform in the face of resistance from public-sector workers and the trade unions. Royal says she plans to replace France’s aloof style of government with the pragmatic consensus-building associated with Scandinavia. Just what French research needs, perhaps â€” but easier said than done.
Priority should be given to reforms that will make the greatest impact. French science has great strengths, however: would-be reformers must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
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2. Questions for the candidates
I put 15 questions about the future of French science to the three main contenders in the election, FranÃ§ois Bayrou, Nicolas Sarkozy and SÃ©golÃ¨ne Royal.