Exclusive: Let politics decide European research priorities, says France’s research minister

12 Mar 2008 | News
Valerie Pécresse, Research and Higher Education minister, reveals her agenda to Science|Business.

Minister Valerie Pécresse: spearheading reform

Valerie Pécresse, Research and Higher Education minister has been spearheading a seismic reform of universities and public research institutions since Nicolas Sarkozy won the presidential election in France. Now, as France limbers to take on the EU presidency in July, she reveals her agenda for European research to Science|Business and explains how she has started to raise the competitiveness of the French research system.

What is on your agenda for research during the coming French presidency of the Union?

“Our presidency will focus on the issue of science at the service of society. The main objective is to accelerate the construction of the European Research Area, and to make it more efficient. We need better coordination for European, but also for national research programmes, around politically agreed objectives. I also want to work on the evaluation and simplification of European research programme procedures.

"In the autumn, the Commission is planning moves towards a better coordination of research financing among member states and will try to increase the Euro 54 billion already committed to the Seventh Framework Programme. The result would be that Brussels will control more than 5 percent of public R&D spending in Europe. Will you support the Commission in those attempts?

"I do favour better coordination of the various European programmes with the different national programmes. The tools that are currently in place for coordinating European research policies are notoriously inefficient. France’s view is that the construction of the European Research Area should place the member states at the heart of the orientation process, to ensure a coherent view between national and European strategies. The strategic plan for research in energy technologies is the first example of a process defining the content and the structure of such joint programming. Within this, member states should be able to coordinate technology and science policies across different  sectors inside the European Research Area, whilst having the flexibility to configure projects as appropriate. It will provide the opportunity to express more diversity and to exploit more complementarities, while reinforcing national specialisation."

What about education?

"In higher education our priorities are mobility but also quality assurance. Mobility is important for students, but also for other people in the creative industries, artists, entrepreneurs and young people in general. We know it is a wonderful way to make Europe a concrete thing for Europeans citizens. But mobility is only meaningful if we can link it to quality assurance. This means we need better evaluation, and to put in place a European ranking system. Those criteria should be in place in September. They will consider the quality of research and education, but also of infrastructure and quality of life. We need to evaluate the education delivered as well as the institutions themselves. Finally, I would like to see the French presidency making significant progress on persuading universities to provide education for students at all stages of their lives and careers.

"France has finally ended its opposition to the London Protocol on patents. Are you now going to support the European patent?

"The London Protocol was a first step because it simplifies the process of obtaining European patents by removing the cost of translation, which was an obstacle for academic institutions and small companies. We hope that small companies in France – of which only one in four holds a granted patented, against one out of two in the US - will be encouraged to innovate more once they have better access to patent protection. The second step is the European patent, which would offer better legal protection. And unlike patents granted by the European Patent Office, a European patent will have the same strength and effect whatever country it is filed from, and regardless of where any infringement takes place."

Your reform of French universities is now eight months old. What progress do you have to report?

"All universities have already changed their status and have new boards of directors with half as many members. Nine universities have elected their new boards and presidents. There are also twenty universities that have contacted companies and alumni in order to create foundations to help on various issues such as international students’ mobility or new chairs. Universities have five years to adapt to the new law. Our objective is that around a quarter, or twenty universities, will be fully autonomous by the end of this year."

Will more autonomy for the universities help them increase technology transfer, file more patents and create more start-ups?

"The change in status provides our universities with the flexibility, ability to react and the independence to fulfil their new responsibilities. Now they are more autonomous and powerful, our universities have the means to enter in the worldwide battle of knowledge. The smaller board of directors will be able to have a true strategic role. Independent status is also a prerequisite to empower them to build alliances with other universities and high schools (Grandes Ecoles, in the French system) as well as public research organisations, to form new research and higher education consortia. With those, we hope to provide a coherent regional focus and give our students better international visibility. Also one tech transfer organisation for each consortium will provide the scale to drive commercialisation."

How are you going to spend the funds raised in the sale of public shares in public electric utility company EDF?

"We are committed to increase the budget of the universities by 50 percent over the next five years to Euro 15 billions. In addition to that we are going to invest a further Euro 5 billion from the sale of EDF shares to renovate our campuses and invest in infrastructure. The idea is to create large, federated campuses to increase their international visibility. University infrastructure is a key factor in international attractiveness. The first campus to be selected for investment will be announced during the Spring."

France suffers under investment by the private sector in R&D. What are you going to do to improve the situation here?

"Tax breaks have proved to be the most efficient instrument to support investment in innovation. And it benefits applied researches as well as the fundamental sciences. We have decided to increase the tax break from 10 percent to 30 percent of company’s R&D spending up to a maximum of Euro100 millions. Also, for new claimants, the tax break reaches 50 percent the first year and 30 percent the second. With Euro 1.3 billions earmarked to finance the system this year, we have now the means to reduce the private research spending gap in France. In addition, these tax breaks are not reserved for French companies. This is attracting research centres from abroad into France. Every body will benefit from this reform, and particularly young PhDs because hiring them is covered by the tax break."

How do expect the large public research organisms like CNRS and INSERM to evolve, particularly now that France has created a project-based funding agency, the ANR?

"2008 is the turning point. We have to reconnect the various actors of research between themselves, but also to find coherence. The tools are already there. The agreement reached in 2006 with the various stakeholders allows consortia or thematic networks to be established. With the new autonomy, universities themselves are now able to take initiatives. This year will be dominated by three keywords: Contracting - be it the new objectives contracts of CNRS, INSERM or ANR; Evaluating - with the formation of the new independent evaluation agency (AERES); and Simplifying. The complexity of our research landscape may once have been a strength, but this is not the case anymore. We need to get rid of bureaucracy and give time back to our researchers. Now is the time to get into the details and unlock the doors one by one.”

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