Next week, France’s scientists will be among citizens at the ballot box to begin the process of choosing the country’s next president.
Opinion polls suggest that incumbent Emmanuel Macron, from the centrist party La République en Marche, will probably win the election: in opinion polls, he currently has a lead of around 9% over his closest rival, Marine Le Pen of the far-right Rassemblement National.
Macron’s manifesto promises to make research a national priority and to increase university autonomy. “We must continue to encourage basic research and boost innovation,” it says. “We will make France the world leader in research on climate warming and environmental transition.” Some scientists welcome these pledges, although others are more sceptical.
Le Pen’s programme mentions research in passing, promising to support basic science, research and development and innovation. The third-best-performing candidate in opinion polls, Jean-Luc Mélanchon of the far-left La France Insoumise, has pledged to abolish the current ten-year science plan (which is due to run until 2030), increase research budgets and launch a major plan to build and renovate laboratories and other university facilities.
Ahead of the first round of voting on 10 April, Nature spoke to three scientists in France about how science has fared under Macron’s leadership, and what their hopes are for the future.
Explore other worlds to inspire people
Susan Conway, planetary-science researcher at a lab jointly run by the University of Nantes and the French national research agency CNRS.
“I hope that research on space exploration and Earth observation will be high on the agenda for whoever wins the presidential election. Exploring other worlds inspires people and spurs technology innovations that would otherwise be missed. Satellites have revolutionized our understanding of climate change and have permitted rapid reaction to hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other natural disasters.
“Overall, President Macron has been positive for science, and has fostered investments in energy, climate and biomedical research. He does not concentrate only on the research structures perceived as ‘excellent’ — in the past, this focus has poisoned relationships between French universities and among researchers. However, research funding in France is highly fractured and difficult to navigate, even from the inside. This complexity delayed funding for research during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I welcome Macron’s plans to promote the space industry and more cutting-edge topics in higher education, should he win the election. As a female researcher, I would like to see more women in science and greater gender equality. On balance, I am optimistic about the research ecosystem in France. I was born and educated in the United Kingdom, but plan to spend the rest of my career in France, because of the stability and freedom working for the CNRS gives me.”
A decline in research funding
Bruno Canard, research director of a joint CNRS-Aix-Marseille University structural biology lab.
“For me, the top priority for the next five years should be the creation of a real research ministry in the government. The last time we had one was in 2002. Since then, research has been merged with higher education, technology or innovation.
“I would also like to see an end to the low-noise war between France’s research bodies, such as the CNRS, the biomedical research agency Inserm and the agricultural and environmental research agency Inrae, which report to different government departments.
Macron stresses university autonomy and project-driven research in his manifesto but says nothing about the lack of infrastructure and staff. Public research funding has continued to decline in real terms, and COVID-19 vaccines have been a fiasco. Other countries, including China, have moved in the opposite direction since the early 2000s by devoting unprecedented resources to research, because they realized its strategic importance internationally.
“Despite the erosion of French science over the past 20 years, I remain optimistic. There is a huge demand for science in France, and more people understand its role in combating the SARS-CoV-2 virus.”
A new road map for research?
Bernard Meunier, former president of the French Academy of Sciences and emeritus research director at the CNRS chemical coordination lab in Toulouse.
“This is the ninth French presidential election since I started working as a scientist in 1970. I always hope that the government will reduce the bureaucracy in research institutions such as universities, the National Research Agency ANR, the evaluation agency Hcéres, and leading public-research organizations such as the CNRS. One research minister, Thierry Mandon (who held the post from 2015 to 2017), tried to tackle the bureaucracy problem, unfortunately without success.
“Another of my hopes for the next five years is that there will be more funding for blue-skies research, which Macron does not quantify in his re-election platform. At the beginning of his term in office, Macron paid only lip service to science, and did little about it. That started to change when COVID-19 reached France at the beginning of 2020, but there still hasn’t been a massive impact on science funding. France should create a new road map for research.”
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.