More than a third of France's laboratory directors resigned en masse Tuesday to protest a government funding shortage, threatening to paralyze large areas of scientific research in a country that has always set great store by its technological prowess.
The dramatic move, plunging the world of French science into crisis, has revealed grave fears for the future of innovation in France, which is falling behind its international competitors and losing increasing numbers of scientists to jobs abroad.
A world-beater in many 20th century technologies such as space exploration, aeronautics, nuclear energy, and high-speed trains, France is lagging behind in cutting-edge fields such as biotechnology and nanotechnology, where small labs have an advantage over cumbersome industrial research institutions.
The lab directors are demanding higher government spending on fundamental research. But the plight of French science goes beyond money to the heart of France's painful efforts to modernize itself while maintaining its sense of identity.
"Money is not the major issue in French science," says Claude Desplan, a French biologist who teaches at New York University. "The problem is the way it is distributed: France has an egalitarian system, but science is elitist."
Many French scientists, however, fear that planned moves to a more competitive, US-style system of laboratory funding - paying researchers for specific projects - would endanger both long-term research efforts and scientists' job security in a country where most researchers get tenure early in their careers.
"Copying the American model will not allow labs to develop long-term plans, and it will create worry for employees about finding another job," says Jean Dejax, a paleobotanist at the Natural History Museum in Paris. "We had an excellent system that is under attack."
The resigning directors are demanding that the government unblock research funds that have been frozen since 2002, promise to hire a larger number of young researchers this year, and turn 550 temporary research contracts into permanent positions.
The funding shortage has become critical, says Philippe Lesavre, head of a laboratory at the National Institute for Health and Medical Research (INSERM), who resigned with more than 1,000 other lab directors at a mass meeting Tuesday at the Paris city hall. "Our budgets have been shrinking slowly for some years, but this year there are no new jobs at all at INSERM for young immunology researchers," he complains.
"I resigned because it is no longer possible for me to function like this, with no new jobs and no new money," says Veronique Monnet of the National Institute for Agricultural Research.
The center-right government has pledged to release the frozen funds, and to create 120 new permanent research jobs this year. Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin promised over the weekend to commit 3 billion euros ($3.7 billion) to scientific research over the next three years, and announced plans to reform the whole system of funding.
"We have to plan funding, but also the reform of research structures in France," Mr. Raffarin told the daily Liberation. "We are not engaged in short-term bargaining. but facing the construction of the country's future."
The government's ideas for reform will probably face considerable opposition, as they are likely to mean an end to the "jobs for life," which have become a cornerstone of the scientific community.
French funding of research and development, at 2.2 percent of GDP, is actually above average for the European Union, and a greater share of it comes from the public purse, rather than private enterprise, than in many other developed countries. But not all the budgeted money is actually disbursed, as the French government seeks savings to reduce its overall budget deficit: By the end of last year, the authorities had released only half of the country's largest research body's 2002 working capital.
Nor is the money necessarily well spent, say some experts. "The rigidities in the system and the patterns of funding probably hamper the efficiency of public research," argues Daniel Malkin, head of the Science and Technology Policy Division at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Paris-based club of rich countries.
Most of the money goes to large institutions that divide it up according to criteria that do not sufficiently take into account scientific excellence or new areas of research, critics say.
France's top-heavy, centralized system of funding science is a hangover from the glory days of French science in the post-World War II period, when the state created major research and development institutions whose large-scale projects to build nuclear power plants, aircraft, and space vehicles propelled France to the forefront of innovation.
"We cannot continue with an archaic system designed to boost France in space and the nuclear field, which is not adapted to the more fluid world of biotechnology, where progress is made in small labs by small teams," argues Philippe Pouletty, head of the Strategic Innovation Council, a private pressure group lobbying for high-tech firms.
France invested only $20 million in nanotechnology between 1997 and 2000, according to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development figures, compared to $280 million in the United States, $190 million in Japan, and $70 million in Germany.
French science "is anemic," Etienne-Emile Baulieu, the President of the Academy of Science, recently told the daily Le Monde. "I would not speak of decline, but of the absence of positive evolution. That is extremely serious, because we should compare ourselves with other countries."
The situation can be ameliorated only by a major cultural shift in how researchers work, reform advocates say.
"France is changing," says Dr. Pouletty, who is urging the government to take a competitive "bottom up, not top down" attitude to science funding. "Some researchers will oppose this, on political grounds. But most will support the idea, because it favors the best among them."