In a speech on 22 January, as he laid out his plans for a national strategy on science and innovation, French President Nicolas Sarkozy lambasted the country’s university system as “infancy” and “paralyzed for creativity and innovation”. . Sarkozy implied that the French researchers were awash with cushioned jobs, and were no match for their supposedly more hardworking British counterparts.
The speech la methode was a typically melodramatic example of Sarkozy and, if it contained some domestic truth, was largely a caricature. His harsh rhetoric in this matter (see http://tinyurl.com/av7flg) may only strengthen the resistance he has set out to overcome.
In 2000, the current Minister of Science, Claude Alegre, saw his plans for comprehensive reforms collapse after scientists united against him, weary of his unnecessary provocation and doubting reforms imposed from the higher up with little consultation. Sarkozy is enjoying a similar fate.
To their credit, Sarkozy and his science minister, Valerie Pecrese, have pushed for much-needed modernization. These include putting universities on the road to independence from centralized administration, giving them badly needed cash, and injecting a healthy dose of grants based on competing offers (see Nature 453, 133; 2008).
But the massive strike at French universities that began this week (see page 640) shows that, applied to the research community, La Méthode Sarkozy has reached its limits. Sarkozy should pay attention to Alegre’s past mistakes and understand that he cannot modernize France’s research system unless he has scientists.
As things stand, even the top researchers who support the broader thrust of reforms complain that their advice is being ignored, and that many of the changes seem like A grand institutional rearrangement is being demanded by technocrats, an end in itself.
The gist of Sarkozy’s reforms is true, but he has to engage more with scientists in order to be successful. Many researchers perceive the corrections as if they were in a plane flying through thick clouds, affected by the turbulence of almost weekly changes, with little idea of where the plane was taking them.
Some fears are exaggerated, but others are valid. To arrive at their destination, Pécresse and Sarkozy needed to consult on improvements with the sailors in the research community who know this airspace best. And Sarkozy, a quick-witted person, may have to admit that sometimes unwanted accidents can be avoided by throttling back.