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."