Web Date: February 19, 2009
Scientists In The Streets
More than 30,000 French demonstrators marched in Paris and in a dozen cities across France on Feb. 19 to show their dismay about planned government reforms to research and education, according to several news reports.
Under President Nicolas Sarkozy, the French government's relationship with the scientific community has been rocky, but since January, their somewhat tenuous rapport has disintegrated.
In a Jan. 22 speech to the research and industrial community, President Sarkozy criticized French scientists, calling the country's universities "weak" and its research system "infantile" and "paralyzing."
A letter released by the French Chemical Society (SFC), along with its math and physics counterparts, called Sarkozy's speech "pointlessly provocative and contemptuous."
Sarkozy's comments are like salt in the wound for many French scientists, who feel that recently announced reforms to academic research and higher education were too hasty in their development and short-sighted in their execution.
In particular, many scientists object to a decree that would give university presidents more power to modulate teaching loads for scientists and more control over academic career advancement, explains Jean-Claude Bernier, a vice chairman of SFC. The reforms make it too easy for favoritism to creep into the system, Bernier says. Many scientists are also upset by the 450 university positions that were removed from the country's 2009 budget.
Yet another contentious issue is the government's plans to morph the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), the country's prestigious national research laboratories, at least partly into a funding agency. Hints that CNRS might be reorganized got French scientists marching last May (C&EN, June 2, 2008, page 13).
By the end of January, unions had called for a nationwide strike of teachers and researchers, which started on Feb. 2 and continues today. The strike has led to cancellation of some classes in universities across France. The grassroots organization Sauvons la Recherche (Let's Save Research) has also organized demonstrations across the country, such as the one this week and another one on Feb. 10, which attracted, by conservative estimates, more than 40,000 people. In Lyon, activists have held mock funerals for universities. And Let's Save Research has also called for scientists to send copies of recent journal articles to Sarkozy to acquaint him with French research.
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