25 Nov 2010   |   News

In times of austerity, France keeps up science stimulus

Research spending goes up in 2011 and projects funded by stimulus money are in progress. But the government needs to show R&D is worth it.

On the face of it, research spending and investment is still prioritised by a French government that has moved so fast from stimulus to austerity in its public spending that the Minister of Finance, Christine Lagarde, coined the term “la rilance”, a word that mixes rigour and “relance”, or stimulus in French, to describe the current policy.

As the axe falls elsewhere, stirring strikes and public protests, for the fourth year in a row the French budget for research and higher education has been increased in the 2011 budget adopted recently by the French Parliament. At €25.2 billion, it is increasing by 1.9 per cent, slightly less than in 2009, when there was a 2.7 per cent rise. Still, along with Justice, R&D is the only public budget that has not been cut.

Within this, the higher education budget is increasing 1.3 per cent to reach €14.9 billion. Public support for research, which stood at 2.07 per cent of GDP in 2007 and 2.21 per cent in 2009, will reach 2.7 per cent of GDP in 2011.

According to the Research Minister, Valerie Pecresse, the public research budget and other support for R&D, such as the “credit-impot research” - a tax break of 30 per cent for company investments in R&D – will increase the overall research spending in France by €4.7 billion next year. There are some signs of stress here however, because the R&D tax credit is costing €4 billion a year instead of the €2 billion that was planned. In the face of cuts in welfare spending, this is starting to be criticised as being too generous to private sector companies.

University reforms continue to gather pace

Meanwhile, the 2007 law giving universities autonomy, allowing them to manage their human resources and to recruit abroad, is moving smoothly. In all, sixty universities have adopted the new system, and it is expected that 75 out of a total of 83 universities will be autonomous by next January.

In parallel, “Operation Campus”, a €5 billion investment into the real estate and infrastructures of universities, financed by the 2008 sale of government shares in the utilities giant EDF, is moving ahead, though progress has been slower here. For example, the €1 billion construction programme planned on the Saclay Plateau, near Ecole Polytechnique to accommodate Paris-based institutions such as ENSTA Paris Tech, has only just started. And the situation of other engineering schools, like Ecole Centrale or Ecole des Mines, is unclear, because the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe is reluctant to see these institutions relocate from the centre of the city to Saclay, on its periphery.

Much stimulus money is still to be spent

In terms of research investment, the core of the government’s stimulus package was last year’s national borrowing programme, known as the “Grand Emprunt”. This raised €35 billion of which €22 billion are to be devoted to research labs and universities.

Here, things are advancing at the sedate speed that typifies the French civil service, but there is some headway. At the beginning of October a first call for proposals was launched to select ten Poles of Excellence. These will share €7.7 billion, which comes partly in direct funding, and partly in the form of an endowment fund of €700 - €1 billion.

This funding is to become permanent if a Pole of Excellence is successful after four years. But it will be next spring before the outcome of the selection process – to be carried out by an international jury – will be known. Only then will the money start to be spent.

However, other investments under the Grand Emprunt are closer to realisation. For example, the Ministry of Research has just closed a call for proposals for €2 billion of science equipment, receiving 333 applications, of which half are in engineering. Here though, the devil is in the detail. On one hand spending on equipment is being increased by the stimulus programme, one the other hand there have been cuts in the regular research budget for large equipment. Large research infrastructures such as synchrotrons, space telescopes and the like, will have their budgets cut by 5 per cent next year.

During a recent visit to one such large research infrastructure, the Laser Source Megajoul, in Bordeaux, the French President Nicolas Sarkozy insisted that, “France will continue to massively invest in its research.”

There is no doubt Sarkozy believes he can restore French competitiveness through investing in research and innovation. But the budget constraints of France’s welfare state force him to walk on an extremely thin line. And his problem is that for the moment, France’s investments in research are not paying off politically. For example, despite all the policy changes and investment since 2007, French universities have not moved up the international rankings.

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