“In the French research system, whether you work well or not, it comes down to the same thing”

“In the French research system, whether you work well or not, it comes down to the same thing”

MAINTENANCE – France has only four establishments in the top 100 of the Shanghai ranking, published on August 15. For the member of the Academy of Sciences, if we finally want to stem the relative decline of French research, drastic reforms are needed.

Jean-Marc Egly, member of the Academy of Sciences, is research director at Inserm and professor at the National University of Taiwan. He was Chairman of the Scientific Council of the National Sequencing Center (Génoscope, Évry). He is also the winner of the grand prize for medical research from Inserm (2004) and the Foundation for Medical Research (2012).


FIGAROVOX. – Four French establishments are present in the top 100 of the Shanghai 2022 ranking. The government is pleased with this. Is the balance sheet positive?

Jean-Marc EGLY. No, it’s very negative and we shouldn’t be happy about it. Obviously the shanghai ranking is the result of hard work, the criteria of the universities are very different, but this ranking is not really questionable.

The first observation is that we have retreated. This is the logical continuation of what we have seen over the past two or three years. There were the poor results of our country at the European Council for major contracts. Indeed, the European Research Council launches a call for tenders every year. It is very competitive and offers funding of up to 2 million euros for five years. The best in European research apply there. For four to five years, France has been stepping back and giving way to the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands. Ten years ago, France was first or second depending on the discipline. In some cases, we don’t have more winners than Ireland. Moreover, France continues to shine by its absence at international congresses. Similarly, it is heartbreaking to see a Frenchman based at the University of Geneva receive Fields Medal – based in Geneva precisely because France did not offer him the necessary working conditions.

The Covid pandemic has worked as a revealer: we have not been able to produce a vaccine.

Jean-Marc Egly

From this point of view, the Covid pandemic worked as a revealer: we were not able to produce a vaccine and we still don’t hear the French community suggesting a drug.

On the other hand, the Minister has been credited with the fact that Paris Saclay is well classified; however, it is not in two or three years that a presidency can produce such a phenomenon. In reality, Paris-Saclay is well ranked because many large schools are grouped there (AgroParisTech, CentraleSupélec). Similarly, one should not criticize the new president for the setback recorded. One thing is certain: we cannot be happy with these results.

The four French establishments in the top 100 have all lost places. How to explain it?

The loss of speed is the result of things that have been going on for about 20 years. First of all, research has never interested political power. There have been no major political advances on this subject, almost since De Gaulle. There were some enthusiasms and positive patches when Hubert Curien was minister or during the Sarkozy period with Valérie Pécresse, but the problem, in reality, is much broader. This truth, no one wants to see it.

One cannot be a good teacher in higher education without also being a researcher. Today, however, those who teach at the university have not developed leading research activities.

Jean-Marc Egly

First of all, research is not attractive. The salaries are lamentable and do not attract anyone: the bac+12 or bac+15 earn €2,300 or €2,400 per month while living in Paris. There is also an evolution in society that no longer really encourages work, nor does it value it.

But one of the main reasons is that we have separated higher education (university) and research (organizations like CNRS, INSERM, INRA, etc.), twenty or thirty years ago. One cannot be a good teacher in higher education without also being a researcher. Today, however, those who teach at the university have not developed leading research activities, left to those who have been recruited into research organisations.

Furthermore, the teachers, overwhelmed with courses and administrative burdens, are not in a position to have a research activity which requires almost full-time. Someone who has done a good postdoc after four years is damaged by the number of courses he has to do.

Biology students, for example, come to science by default: either because they failed medicine, or because they were not accepted into BTS or IUT, which are selective.

Jean-Marc Egly

The result is that we no longer have the teachers of yesteryear, nor the students of before. Students are no longer motivated today. They come to do research because they don’t know what else to do and no one wants to see it, let alone higher education teachers. Biology students, for example, come to science by default: either because they failed medicine, or because they were not accepted into BTS or IUT, which are selective. At the university, we get these students back and you can’t do miracles. They have neither the motivation nor the level one would expect; they will therefore not perform feats.

Why are the first fifteen research establishments in the ranking Anglo-Saxon? What more do they have?

It’s a very good comparison. Indeed, the system in Anglo-Saxon establishments is completely different from ours. First of all, there are salaries: if we compare to Switzerland, Germany or Anglo-Saxon countries, French salaries represent half.

The second point is that in Anglo-Saxon countries, doing research, having contracts, having publications, making patents, represents a real challenge and is widely recognized. All this is therefore rewarded with a certain respect: we receive bonuses, we obtain promotions. In the French research system, none of this is possible. Whether you work well or not, it comes down to the same thing. In France, the unions do not want us to give bonuses and say that someone is better than another; we are at the stage “it has not been unworthy!”.

The Anglo-Saxons, on the contrary, want excellence and competence. In the United States, if you are one of the best and you are Full Professor in a university in Minnesota and you produce beautiful things, you can very well pretend to Harvard, Berkeley or Stanford, with increasing credits and salaries to match. In France, point of all that, there is neither attractiveness, nor mobility and nor promotion.

We are still a bit competitive because the French spirit is fantastic, but we are no longer attractive.

Jean-Marc Egly

In addition, there are funding issues. Universities and research organizations recruit but do not provide the means to work. Because of that, France no longer recruits foreigners, or very few of them: we recruit them but we don’t give them funding.

Let’s look at it‘Pastor Institute which can be an example: it recruits almost no more Anglo-Saxon researchers or researchers from northern countries (Germany, Holland, Sweden, etc.). In the United States, we give a position and a large sum of money for five years, to be able to set up your own team and recruit, on the understanding that you will also have to find some money on your own for the future.

We are still a bit competitive because the French spirit is fantastic, but wewe are more attractive in these conditions.

Do you think that the objectives of the programming law will allow France to impose itself more in the ranking? Would the situation require a much larger change?

A much broader change is needed. These are only patches that each minister adds as he pleases. We need a complete reform of the university. The university wants to manage research but those who have been managing the university for fifteen years have never integrated research. There is no university president who has received a major prize (Nobel Prize, Fields medal). Those who are, may be excellent managers but are far removed from the world of research because they have not experienced it on a daily basis and at the international level. They have not been confronted with international meetings and often have a lack of knowledge of what is done elsewhere and of the competitive dimension of research.

When I was a student, it was the big bosses who came to teach. Henceforth, they discharge their courses. It is the assistant professor or the intern who teaches in their place.

Jean-Marc Egly

A current objective, which is also very laudable, is training; for that, we need trainers, that is to say professors who are also researchers and who also have research teams and this species is endangered. Those who are teachers, at least in the life sciences, do not have a research team. When I was a student, it was the big bosses who came to teach. From now on, they are offloading their lessons, which is a shame and should not be possible. It is the assistant professor or the intern who teaches in their place. We don’t know if they give good or bad lessons. To give a good course is to make students vibrate: all my colleagues came to research because they had a professor who made them vibrate.

We therefore need a complete reform of the university: every professor should be a researcher or at least have (and let him have) a substantial research activity. We talk about teacher-researcher but it is a decoy. There should no longer be a distinction between research director in an organization and professor. There must be a general obligation to take courses regardless of your status, Nobel Prize holder or young recruit. A dozen hours of compulsory lessons for each would suffice, the internet will make up for the rest.

We must also increase salaries: make salaries that are competitive, the same as in Germany or Scandinavia; no more but at least the same thing. If we are recruiting from now on, we have to give something to work for. Now we recruit for a project but we don’t give the money to do the project: the researchers spend a year or two to find funding, and in the current international competition, the project is quickly obsolete.


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