Letter from France - Sauvons la recherche

French academics have recently begun a campaign for the protection and enhancement of university research. In his latest letter from France, Professor Alan Kirman, Université d'Aix Marseille, argues that more money alone is not the solution while its distribution is indiscriminate.

In France this year there have been rumblings of protest in the Universities. Normally speaking, this means that the students are unhappy and nothing worries the French government, of whatever colour, more than that. However, this time the threat comes from a different and much less intimidating source, the university teachers and researchers themselves. What is the complaint? French research is falling behind that in the rest of the world, we can no longer attract good students to this career and the good ones that get their doctorate in France are leaving for more rewarding shores. The answer proposed by the movement that has been created and which is called ‘Sauvons la Recherche’ is simple, more funds for research and, in particular, higher salaries for those entering the profession. The people who have organised this movement are not new entrants to the academic profession and can evidently not, they say, be accused of self-interest in this last recommendation! But it is a little difficult to believe that a substantial increase in entry salaries would not have a knock-on effect for their senior colleagues, mais passons!

The first and most obvious question is why should anyone outside the research community care about all this? Here, we economists enter into our own, for those responsible for the movement are at pains to point out that we have clearly shown that there is a strong and significant relationship between research and economic growth. Actually it is worse, for much of the work in this area examines the relationship between expenditure on research, or more often R and D, and growth. Given this and a little faith it is not a big step to the conclusion that more resources would solve the problem. How clear the relationship is, in fact, is another question, and this is not the place to answer it. Nevertheless the way to get public backing for the movement is to show that voters have an economic interest in increasing the funds for research.

Resources are shrinking...
How bad is the situation? The movement claims that support for research in the public sector has been steadily diminishing and that fewer posts are being provided for the universities and the French research council, the CNRS. The government contests these figures and the global evidence is difficult to evaluate. However, in economics the number of posts made available in the last four years is roughly half the number in the previous four years and a number of research laboratories have seen their recognition (approved and consequently funded by the CNRS), removed.

Although the figures are open to discussion, France devotes some 0.6 per cent of its GNP to publicly funded research and the private sector about 1.5 per cent. In terms of the 3 per cent target set by the European meeting in Barcelona in 2002 the public sector should increase its effort by 50 per cent and the private sector by 33 per cent if we are to achieve the 1/3 to 2/3 division that is suggested. Hence, the call for more resources.

...and badly distributed
But is this the root of the problem? Some, like myself, feel that it is the distribution of the resources that is wrong. The protest movement by French researchers grew up to respond to what is seen as a Draconian plan to cut back on expenditure. When the government proposed a series of national meetings to examine the situation in higher education. The movement immediately proposed a series of parallel consultations which terminated in the recent Etats Généraux de la Recherche which, in a 90 page document made a number of proposals. Although the proposals make use of many terms, such as ‘incentives’ or ‘evaluation’, nowhere is it suggested that resources should be concentrated on those who are doing good research at the international level. Even less is it argued that those who do no research should not receive research funds. Thus any increase in funds would be spread amongst all the ‘enseignant-chercheurs’ in the universities and the researchers in the CNRS. The basic theme is that everyone is good at something and that we must find out what it is and encourage people to do it. In naïve economic terms we must bring the marginal social productivity of those who do not do much at the moment up to scratch, by giving people the right incentives. To do this within the public sector, as a whole would be laudable but to achieve it within the research and university sector as things stand would be nothing short of miraculous. One obvious idea would be to increase the teaching load of those who do not do research and to lighten it for those who are active in research. This is not on the agenda for the obvious reason that it would diminish substantially the support for the movement.

Perhaps, at this point, it is worth examining the actual state of research, at least in economics, in France. At first sight it does not seem to be too bad. France is classed third among European countries in a number of the evaluations of economics departments in Europe published in a recent issue of the Journal of the European Economic Association1 and its most productive departments such as Toulouse and various Parisian groups such as CREST and DELTA,2 are in the upper echelons. Combes and Linnemer actually find that in terms of raw total output France ranks second behind the U.K. Such evaluations of research should be treated with care and, in a paper, in the same issue, with some co-authors we try to explain the statistical fragility of such exercises. Nevertheless they do give a basic guide until something better is devised.

The need for selectivity
So why should we be unhappy with French economic research? Consider the following question. Of all authors in France who have produced at least one article in a journal listed by the JEL in the last 10 years, what is the median number of articles published in the same period in such a journal? Note that we have already eliminated those who have published none at all and there is a considerable number of them. Well, the answer is one!! That is, the majority of people who achieve one article in 10 years do not publish another one. That the distribution of published articles is skewed is common knowledge but not to this point. Such a statistic shows why some of us are sceptical about spreading additional funds across all the academics in economics. Putting more money into centres of excellence seems an obvious way to reward those who are productive.

As the system stands, this cannot be in the form of salary increases since there is a common national scale, but can well be in the form of improved working conditions, support staff and funding for travel etc. A modest effort has been made in this direction with the creation of the Institut Universitaire de France, which elects 15 senior members, (across all disciplines) and 25 junior, (under 40) members per year. These individuals have two thirds of their teaching bought out and receive 15000 euros a year in research funding. But these are the happy few and this has little impact on the mass of academics.

This brings me to the next point, national salary scales. People are recruited into academic posts whether they are a lecturer at Paris 1 or at the technical institute of Saint Perdu, at the same salary. Promotion is on the basis of seniority. Whilst not arguing for a ferociously competitive system there does seem to me to be room for improvement here.

At the professorial level things are somewhat different in terms of promotion but the recruitment system is so bizarre that it might have been designed by someone trying to minimise the efficiency of the system. How does one become a professor of economics today in France? The principle route is via the ‘aggrégation’. This is a competition mainly entered by young recent doctorates. There is a first examination by a committee (chosen by the Ministry) on the basis of the candidate’s research and if this hurdle is passed they must give two ‘lessons’, on the basis of subjects drawn at random, in fields more or less close to their interests. These are prepared in 8 hours in a locked room and are judged as much on form and precise timing as on content. The average age of the successful candidates in the last competitions was between 29 and 30. The committee that chooses the candidates has remarkably few publications to its names and the candidates themselves can hardly be refused on the quality of their research since they have not had the time to publish anything.3 Essentially they are judged, if at all, on their thesis and we are back to the good old days. The successful candidates do not publish significantly more than the rest of the population in their careers so it is astonishing that this system, which does not exist in the scientific or literary disciplines, should survive. Once he has obtained a post a professor’s promotion is largely in the hands of a national committee, which uses seniority as its basic criterion.

There is another route into research, which is the CNRS, the closest equivalent in a Western country to the old Academies of Sciences in the former Soviet block. The CNRS employs full time researchers and they have no teaching obligations. Selection is on somewhat more rational criteria but the same skewed distribution of output persists.

From time to time it is suggested that the CNRS should become a funding agency like the ESRC or the NSF and not a major employer and that there should be a unique status for ‘enseignant chercheurs’. This, like any change in the French system, is met with fierce resistance.

The selection system is not satisfactory and once people are appointed they have lifetime jobs. I would be the last to suggest that keeping people in a precarious situation is the best way to encourage productivity but the current system gives no opportunity to individuals to prove that they have the qualities necessary to do research before they are appointed. In addition jobs are allocated uniformly across universities and this is justified by the myth of the equality of all universities in France. This does nothing to encourage the growth of strong groups and the geographical allocation of young professors by their rank in the ‘concours d’aggrégation’ does not help. We are selecting people some of whom will be rather successful in research but most of whom will do nothing. Is this because of the selection or because of the environment in which these young people find themselves? I suspect that it is a combination of both.

The main complaint of the ‘Sauvons la Recherche’ group is that research and higher education is becoming unattractive as a career. Yet the evidence is completely the opposite. Each year the national committee in each field decides which of the young PhDs who apply should be ‘qualified’ to apply for posts in France. In economics there are some 350-400 new PhDs in economics each year, most of whom are candidates for qualification and of whom about a half are refused. It is a little bit like a scene from the First World War, with several hundred brave young people coming out of the academic trenches and marching determinedly towards what will be, for at least half of them, certain academic death! The surviving candidates fight it out for the 50 odd posts of ‘maitre de conférences’ in various universities. Small universities mandate their representatives in the national committee to maximise the number of qualifications so that they may have a good chance of recruiting their own candidates and this explains the poor correlation between the rating of those qualified and their probability of getting a job. Nevertheless there is no lack of supply of candidates.

Do we then reject the best candidates? The ‘Sauvons la Recherche’ protagonists seem to suggest that in other disciplines this is not the case, for they argue that the professors come, in general, from the best of the ‘Grandes Ecoles’, so the best are not being discouraged from entering the race and furthermore they seem to make it. The problem is rather the type 2 error; too many people who get permanent jobs do little or no research in their careers.

The fact that a number of the good researchers come from the Ecole Polytechnique, the Ecole Normale Supérieure or other less prestigious but still very selective institutions, brings me to the last piece of the puzzle, the Grandes Ecoles. If there is one part of the French system that seems to produce good students many of whom finally wind up in research jobs, this is it. But look at the contrast with the university system. For the Grandes Ecoles, the only equality is the equality of opportunity to sit the national exams to enter these institutions. Nobody pretends that they are of equal standing yet this seems to be perfectly acceptable. There is a system of scholarships, which enable the rigorously selected students to go to the Ecole that they succeed in getting into. Nothing could be more elitist.

The other side of the schizophrenic coin is given by the universities where most research is done. The main feature here is the fiction that all of them are equal and that any French citizen has access to the same level of education in his local university no matter where he lives. No aid is available for a student to study at a university elsewhere in his early years, and the reason given, is that such aid would be unnecessary since égalité prevails amongst universities. The latter argument has a further perverse result. Every university feels that it is entitled to its doctoral programme and this accounts for the fact that France produces so many PhDs in economics and, since many of them are recruited by their own university where research is not a priority, this also explains the lack of research activity among many young university teachers.

Given the system as it is now, the misallocation of resources is self-reinforcing. Many potentially good students do not get the education they need to do research at the international level. They may go on to do doctorates but the latter are of very varied quality. Having taken part in the National University Committee, where we decided who to qualify, I can testify to this. Many of those with poor theses slip through the net and once they do so they have some chance of finding a post, usually at their own university. Those who do not make it are usually not good and few good candidates are eliminated. But, to repeat, the problem is that too many candidates get through the first filter and after that quality is not the top priority in the local competitions.

So what is the general picture? Too many candidates are chasing jobs. There is no shortage of potential researchers. Many of those who get jobs will not do any research in any standard sense. Yet, in the name of equality, all those who have university jobs have a claim to any increase in funds. Thus to have any real effect the increase would have to be really substantial However, if any additional research funding were to be concentrated on the more productive groups it would have a real effect. Doctoral programmes in universities not producing research could be shut down. These institutions could concentrate on undergraduate teaching, far from an unworthy task. In addition, if those groups or universities that are productive were to receive funding for jobs and the possibility to vary teaching loads to reward active researchers things could move ahead fast. One could also mention the possibility of pecuniary rewards but this would immediately be characterised as ultra-liberal and there are some labels that are difficult to live with in France.

You will have noticed that the modest reallocation of research funds suggested here does not suggest any more serious reform of the research system in France — university teachers would still be civil servants and resources would still be allocated by a central authority. The only thing that would disappear is the idea of equal treatment for all in matters of funding. This will not be so easy to sell and to show why this is so let me describe an incident at a recent conference to discuss the future of the CNRS.

One researcher observed that the CNRS finances certain journals in economics. These journals are financed because they are considered to be of high quality. She suggested that a subsidy which amounts to x percent of a journal’s costs should oblige the journal to give x percent of its pages to the CNRS. These would then be distributed equally to CNRS researchers in economics who could publish whatever they felt like. That way she asserted everyone would publish in high quality journals and everybody would be better off!

This sort of opposition is not hard to beat. However, much more reasonable people, with whom I often agree, find it difficult to contemplate taking any funds away from their colleagues so I find myself in a slightly uncomfortable position. Yet, what goes to the French universities for research is public money after all and is it too much to suggest that we give more money to those who do research and do not use research funds for those who do none? If it is, then it seems, to me at least, that what we are being asked to ‘sauver’ is not ‘la recherche’ but all those who have already embarked on the academic ship, whether passengers or crew.


1. See Journal of The European Economic Association, Spring 2004, Vol.2 Issue 5.

2. The French system is particularly difficult to understand and most productive researchers belong to a CNRS recognised research group, which for some academics may not be attached to their own university. A number of the authors of papers in the special issue did not manage to penetrate the workings of the French system and this accounts for some bizarre rankings.

3. This is not quite fair. For both qualification and aggregation an article published in one of the journals listed in JEL is now considered essential. This may explain why the majority of those who have published have one, and only one article.

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