A Threat to the Quality of Academic Research in France (guest post by Philippe Huneman)


The following is a guest post* by Philippe Huneman, Professor and Director of Research at Institut d’Histoire et de Philosophie des Sciences (CNRS / Paris I Sorbonne).

[Evariste Richer, “Le mètre vierge”]

A Threat to the Quality of Academic Research in France
by Philippe Huneman

French academics have been shaken in recent months by the declarations of Antoine Petit, director of the major national research organization, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). His vision of the future of the CNRS poses a threat to the quality of academic research in France, as it would drastically diminish the amount of permanent positions and intensify project-based competition for diminishing resources.

Founded in 1939 to encompass all disciplines, to support worldwide collaboration, and to sponsor major scientific projects, the CNRS is a preeminent European research organization, employing 25,000 people including 11,500 permanent researchers.

Most CNRS researchers consider that given their funding levels—2.4 billion dollars, compared for example to the University of California’s budget of 3.2 billion dollars—they are scoring quite well in international competitions and rankings. The CNRS is the number-one recipient of grants from the European Research Commission, for instance, and stands at first or second place in all rankings of research institutions, as well as in the number of publications in Nature. It also counts a substantial number of Nobel Prize laureates as members, as well as almost half of awarded Fields medals, and so on.

Yet in an editorial in Les Echos celebrating 80 years of this institution, Petit called for “an ambitious, unequal law—yes, unequal—, a virtuous and Darwinian law, which supports the most productive scientists, teams, laboratories and institutions on an international scale.”  Among other changes, funds would be even more unevenly split than they are at present between researchers, and in order to appear more “attractive” the CNRS would reserve the best “research environments” and salaries for the “best” members, even though in the French system all researchers are hired at the same salary, since they are all civil servants. All others would have to make do in positions that have been precaritized to greater or lesser degrees. The new “pluriannual law” governing French research policy is expected to be drafted and voted on next Spring on the basis of this new vision.

Such an overt appeal to inegalitarianism has caused significant anger among researchers. At the CNRS, and in general in all French universities, recruiting efforts are, as elsewhere, attracting hundreds of applicants from all over the world for a single position. But the French national funding body, the Agence Nationale de Recherche, now has a selection rate lower than almost all research agencies (less than 10% in some sections). Thus, many French academics consider that research is perhaps already the most competitive area of society, so that intensifying competition is not at all what is needed, but, on the contrary, that more permanent positions should be opened.

In practice, echoing the Social Darwinist views of its president, just after Petit’s speech, on December 4, the CNRS opened 239 positions to application, whereas there were 400 of them as recently as 2010.

A few days after this statement, the French President Emmanuel Macron stated at a prestigious event that bad researchers should “assume the consequences” of their evaluations.

In the wake of both of these claims, the newspaper Le Monde published two open editorials by researchers. The first one, by physicist Fred Restagno, was entitled “So I’m Not a Good Researcher”. If the new research policy abolishes the status of civil servant for researchers, Restagno wrote, which allows them to spend the required time on difficult and non-immediately rewarding problems, and instead transforms labs into something more like start-up incubators, then French scholars in general are no longer “good researchers”.

The second text, written by sixteen philosophers, sociologists and evolutionary biologists, asserted that no “Darwinian selection” can be set up by a law, and that recent research policies are pushing the cooperation/competition continuum that exists in academic research (as elsewhere) towards its competitive extreme. Moreover, they argued, indicators of competition (indices, IF etc) are not measuring something substantial in science, and mostly entail misconduct, fraud, reproducibility issues (as documented by Chevassus-au-Louis 2019). They highlighted that when scientists apply genuine Darwinian models to scientific research, they show that  the policies favored by Petit lead to a “natural selection of bad science” (Smaldino and McElreath 2016).

While Macron suggested that novel sorts of short-term contracts, tailored to funded projects, should be introduced, in addition to permanent positions and short-term postdocs or PhD positions, the authors of the op-ed decried the evaporation of positions with a fixed status (Maître de conférence (Assistant professor) or Chargé de recherche (Junior research scientist), and so on) as well as the proliferation of precarious research positions, imperilling long-term perspectives in fundamental research. What will result from the new law governing research, accordingly, is that the “Maître de conférence” status will be suppressed.

The achievements of the CNRS in fundamental science were made in part, one might easily suppose, as a result of the existence of permanent positions that preserve researchers from the recurring need to ensure their team’s survival. Petit’s assertions reveal the degree to which this security is under attack now.

Subsequently, an open letter initiated by a group of evolutionists and ecologists was published on December 9. Its authors recalled some of the substantial research already devoted to showing the harms of competition-oriented research and of unsound productivity indices. They pointed out the absurdity of a law that would foster individual competition in scientific research, since biologists know of “countless examples of ‘evolutionary dead-ends’ or even ‘evolutionary suicides’, in which the short-term benefits for individuals eventually lead to the extinction of an entire population.” They thus rejected Petit’s initial assumption that “scientific advances are achieved by a few geniuses or in a few ‘centers of excellence’, and that financial resources are ‘better used’ when they are redirected to a few individuals or research centres.”

This letter attracted almost 14,000 signatures from academics in less than two weeks, supplemented by the support of 35 academic societies. In turn, the scientific council of the CNRS, as well as the administrative committee of the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle (a major research structure for biology , ecology and anthropology in France) also expressed opposition to Petit’s statement.

Antoine Petit, in a subsequent op-ed in Le Monde, answered those critiques, condescendingly dismissing the researcher’s concerns as the overly sophisticated fretting of “learnèd types”  (“esprits savants“). Unsurprisingly, this did not bring any tranquillity to the academic community. The upshot of Mr. Petit’s answer is that increased competition between researchers and teams is needed to fuel our international competition with, especially, China. Even though one may believe Mr. Petit when he says that he is no genuine social Darwinist, the intention that guides him and his peers is still, explicitly, the institution of a Spencerian state, in which rarefied resources select the best competitors.

This answer evinced a harsh reply from François-Xavier Fauvelle in the same venue, showing why the parallels with the US academic system —which is the inspiration for those reforms—is ill conceived; and by Michel Veuille, a population geneticist, who in the newspaper Libération points out that Darwin himself would never have been allowed to do his research in the academic world dreamt of by Mr Petit.[1]

In general, French universities and research institutes suffer from a low administration-to-faculty ratio, low funding, high rates of precarious employment, a steady decrease in the amount of new positions, and a research finance policy that massively supports R&D in the private sector under the form of tax exemption (“Crédit d’impôt recherche“), which is contested by many academics. Pressure to meet the dubious “Shanghai ranking”, has pushed university administrators to consider giving exceptional salaries to foreign “stars” (as the director of the CNRS often says) so that France will fare better. They may even hire people, as the University of Strasbourg did last year, with Nobel Prizes who are very senior and hence unlikely to do substantial work, simply in view of the bonuses this provides in the rankings. This seems all the more absurd when we consider that the rapid development of research in China is necessarily diminishing the share of countries like France, UK or the US in global scientific production, and hence decreases their scores in any rankings such as the Times Higher Education or Nature Index rankings, not to mention the Shanghai Ranking.

The current leaders in France seem intent to implement policies that have proven to be flawed in the UK and the US, and that academics themselves largely reject in those countries. They violate everything we know about how science works. And these are only some of the reasons motivating French academics to stand against, not only their chief officer’s statements, but more generally the new orientation of research policy. Strikes, collective resignations, and other actions are now being discussed among them. The fight is just starting.

 * * *

References

Chevassus-au-Louis, N. (2019) Fraud in the Lab: The High Stakes of Scientific Research. Harvard University Press.

Smaldino, P. E., McElreath, R. (2016) “The Natural Selection of Bad Science,” Royal Society Open Science, 3. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.160384

[1] Most of these texts, and others on the same topic, are collected here: https://medium.com/@ransu.massol/des-r%C3%A9ponses-et-de-la-suite-dans-les-id%C3%A9es-18309569c9dc

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Nicolas Delon
1 year ago

And they keep complaining about brain drain and wondering why junior scholars leave the country! Attempts by French governments to mimic the American academic system have regularly proved laughable––they misunderstand what makes it so great in some respects, engage in confused reverse engineering, ignore cultural, historical and economic differences, and idolize its worst abuses. What might ultimately come out of all this is not better, more competitive research; it’s increased brain drain. It’s astonishing they’re not realizing how self-defeating these reforms might be. Thanks, Professor Huneman, for this post.Report

French postdoc who spent time in the US
French postdoc who spent time in the US
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 year ago

I fully agree. There is a genuine “cargo cult” going on in France (and I think also in Europe) regarding the US academic system (in philosophy and elsewhere). People in charge try to copy superficial features (or even “bugs”) of the US system without understanding what is good about it. It’s not the only reason why the situation is worsening (everyone in the public service is suffering from budget cuts), but it really does not help.Report

Professor Apricot
Professor Apricot
1 year ago

The exceptional salaries for “stars” system is most pernicious in our discipline. Philosophy is not rock & roll. In my view, we should want advancement through our ranks to be based less on charisma, being incredibly pleased with oneself, and the ability to talk facilely over the top of people in seminars. That is, if we believe the PR about ‘wisdom’ and deep reflective thinking that we spout when we want undergraduates to take our courses, and our Universities not to cut our funding.Report

Christopher Gauker
Christopher Gauker
1 year ago

The Darwinian language is of course insulting and inappropriate, but aside from that I find it hard to evaluate this complaint, given that the French system seems to be quite different from any other I am familiar with. Could someone supply some basic background? Do CNRS researchers also teach courses? Do they teach courses to bachelor students? Are they required to do this? Or do they only do this to earn extra salary? From what I can see online, some do teach and some don’t, but I cannot tell what makes the difference. Are CNRS researchers periodically required to show that they continue to be productive? How often are people dismissed for failure to be productive? Do teaching faculty at French universities have access to research funds? If they are granted research funds, can they get relief from their teaching responsibilities in order spend more time on their research? Prof. Huneman should bear in mind that most of the people reading this combine research with significant teaching responsibilities.Report

Anglo observer
Anglo observer
Reply to  Christopher Gauker
1 year ago

I’m an Anglo native who has done a philosophy degree in France, and I’ll agree that the two systems are not really comparable. The questions you ask are incredibly pertinent. There are indeed some CNRS researchers who teach courses and supervise dissertations, but as far as I know these are voluntarily sought out and are not part of the basic duties. And they usually result from the researcher having a joint appointment in a university department. The basic “chargé de recherche” role is much more similar to a position at the Institute of Advanced Study or other think tank than an assistant professor position at an Anglo university.Report

Philippe Huneman
Philippe Huneman
Reply to  Christopher Gauker
1 year ago

The text was intended to be short so yes, some context is indeed needed
We have two parallel systems, CNRS and university, Both are public. Having a position means in both cases being civil servant, with a life time position. Salaries are equal and grades ( charge de recherche/ directeur de recherche and maitre de conference/full prof) are parallel
Everybody work often in the same labs , which are at the same time Cnrs labs and affiliated to an university
Cnrs researchers are the minority – luck only makes a difference in hiring, between the two systems
. Unlike university faculty They don’t have to teach but most of them do it deliberately. They are paid for this , but something like 1700€ a semester for one class,
They must supervise PHD ms and this is not additionally paid.

In evaluations Cnrs are seen as 100% research and favculty as 50%. Nobody can be fired. And there are no inequalities in salary ( based on evaluation reports)
One has to do a long ( 30 -50 pages) evaluation report every 4 years, and a short one ( 15 pages) every 2 years, and there is a yearly check
Cnrs and university faculty can have research money from their lab/dept but not much. Real research money requires competing for grants like these ANR grants
University faculty can also apply ti a IAS style 5 years grants, which allow them to teach less.

Lots of the first years students are taught by equivalent of TAs now

Nothing in All that is specific to philosophyReport

Philippe Huneman
Philippe Huneman
Reply to  Philippe Huneman
1 year ago

Also- in the research policy we are fighting, Universities and CNRS are equally attacked. We reacted to the words issued by the director of the Cnrs, but he expresses the intent guiding the coming law, which will rule the whole academic systems.
There is nothing proper to cnrs here, and cnrs researchers and university faculty are on a same footing- also within this struggle.
(Administratively, a CNRs lab is composed by cnrs researchers and university faculty. When a lab is evaluated, the productions of all of them are evaluated. The some difference is the source of their salary)

I hope this provides some answer-. Sorry, I know that this system is very complexReport

Christopher Gauker
Christopher Gauker
Reply to  Philippe Huneman
1 year ago

Prof. Huneman, what would you have against a system with the following characteristics? Every teacher-researcher is a member of the faculty of a university and has, by default, teaching responsibilities. But every teacher-researcher can apply (alone or in groups) for funding for projects of limited duration (4, 6 years, whatever) and funding brings a reduction in teaching.

Such a system would be better than what we have in the US, where there are almost no grants for research in philosophy and where a few people get tenure at an elite university and forever after have a low teaching load, and the rest are chained to a plebeian university and forever have a high teaching load. It would be better than what we have in Austria, where, although there is funding for research and a decent chance of getting it, it cannot normally be used to reduce one’s teaching load (but only to pay other people’s stipends and to sponsor workshops).

What I cannot believe is that a commission can reliably judge that some person is such a good researcher that his or her work will forever be worth more than that which might have been done by someone languishing in a teaching position if only he or she had had time for it.Report

Philippe HUneman
Philippe HUneman
Reply to  Christopher Gauker
1 year ago

Personnally I would find this a good system. But of course everything depends upon what is this “default” teaching load.
In France in many universities the teaching and admin laod is very high. Actually the whole system has to be considered if one wants to assess it and change it; and here an important feature is the admin staff/faculty ratio. It is very low here, and gets lower and lower. Meaning that professors have more and more administrative tasks to do (and same at the CNRS). The dominant feeling here, underpinning the protests I described (and one could arguably say that the terrible speech by Petit was merely a triggering cause) is that it’s harder and harder to do research when you are faculty in an university, because you mostly do teaching, admin tasks, and format or reformat research projects probably rejected later (no matter the discipline). And this gets worse, year after year.
As to the description of the US system and the inequality between the ‘elite’ and the rest, it’s exactly the model that our direction, and the goverment, want to impose here, under the label “excellence” . Some have crazy fundings, and time – and others have to work, teach, no time for research, then are evaluated as ‘bad researchers’, and have even less time and research money, etc. It is the very meaning of this “inegalirtarian law” our preseident (Macron) and our driector (Petit) want to implement.

So in a word I would subscribe, in principle, to the system you describe, but for reasons of the history of the system, it’s difficult to instantiate it here – even though many of my colleague philosophers have exactly the same idea, but no one is in a positioon to decide anything – and then, the emergency now consists in preserving and improving a system which is seriously threatened.

Thanks for the attention givenReport

Christopher Gauker
Christopher Gauker
Reply to  Philippe HUneman
1 year ago

Yes, I can understand that one might be reluctant to jump on board for an overhaul, when the overhaul might be hijacked in the wrong direction.Report

Martin Shuster
1 year ago

I have been following this debate relatively closely since last year (when I first learned about as a visitor to Paris 1) … it’s extremely disheartening and sad to me because I think that–not just in philosophy, but certainly especially in philosophy–the French system is a commendable achievement. There are things that are commendable about the American system, but this certainly is not one of them and it is slowly, or maybe no longer so slowly, eroding–destroying–the American system; it is shameful but not at all surprising that French bureaucrats aim to emulate it. Sending support and lots of luck in this fight to our French colleagues.Report

philippe huneman
philippe huneman
Reply to  Martin Shuster
1 year ago

Thanks a lot Martin !Report

Skef
Skef
1 year ago

“Most CNRS researchers consider that given their funding levels—2.4 million dollars, compared for example to the University of California’s budget of 3.2 million dollars—they are scoring quite well in international competitions and rankings.”

Who knew you could run a world-class multi-campus university for a fraction of the annual budget of a rural school district? If the administrators are making things *that* efficient, I say “more administrators!”Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Skef
1 year ago

Billion, in both cases, I think.Report

Philippe Huneman
Philippe Huneman
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

Yes, billions. Of course. Sorry for the typoReport

Skef
Skef
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
1 year ago

It just goes to show: the French know the value of everything and the price of nothing.Report

philippe huneman
philippe huneman
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
1 year ago

thank you Justin, and sorry for thatReport