Jean-Marc Egly: “In the French research system, whether you work well or not, it comes down to the same thing”

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INTERVIEW – France has only four establishments in the top 100 of the Shanghai ranking, published on August 15. For the member of the Academy of Sciences, if we finally want to stop the relative decline of French research, drastic reforms are needed. Jean-Marc Egly, member of the Academy of Sciences, is director of research at Inserm and professor at the National Taiwan University. He was president of the Scientific Council of the National Sequencing Center (Génoscope, Évry). He also won the great prize for medical research from Inserm (2004) and the Foundation for Medical Research (2012). FIGAROVOX. – Four French establishments are present in the top 100 of the Shanghai 2022 ranking. The government is satisfied with this. Is the balance positive? Jean-Marc EGLY. – No, it is very negative and we should not be happy about it. Obviously, the Shanghai ranking is the result of hard work, the criteria of the universities are very different, but this ranking is not really questionable. The first observation is that we have gone backwards. This is the logical continuation of what we have seen over the last two or three years. There were the poor results of our country in the European Council of large contracts, but also the fact that France continues to shine due to its absence in international congresses. Similarly, it is disconcerting to see a Frenchman based at the University of Geneva receiving the Fields Medal – based in Geneva precisely because France did not offer him the necessary working conditions. The Covid pandemic functioned as an eye-opener: we have We have not been able to produce a vaccine Jean-Marc Egly From this point of view, the Covid pandemic has functioned as an eye-opener: we have not been able to produce a vaccine and we still do not hear the French way to propose a drug. In addition, the fact that Paris-Saclay is well classified was attributed to the minister; however, it is not in two or three years that a presidency can produce this phenomenon. Paris-Saclay is actually well ranked because it has many great schools (AgroParisTech, CentraleSupélec). Similarly, there is no need to criticize the new president for the recorded setback. One thing is certain: we cannot be happy with these results: all four French establishments in the top 100 have lost places. How to explain it? The loss of speed is the result of things that have been going on for twenty years. First, the investigation has never interested political power. There has been no major political progress on this issue, almost since De Gaulle. There were some enthusiasms and positive patches when Hubert Curien was minister or during the Sarkozy period with Valérie Pécresse, but the problem, in reality, is much wider. Nobody wants to see this truth, you cannot be a good teacher of higher education without also being a researcher. Today, however, those who teach at the university have not developed leading research activities.Jean-Marc Egly Research, in the first place, is not attractive. Salaries are pitiful and attract no one: bac+12 or bac+15 earn €2,300 or €2,400 a month while living in Paris. There is also a change in society that no longer encourages or really values ​​work, but one of the main reasons is that we have separated higher education (university) and research (organizations such as CNRS, INSERM, INRA , etc.), twenty or thirty years ago. You cannot be a good teacher in higher education without also being a researcher. At present, however, those who teach at the university have not developed leading research activities, they are left in the hands of those who have been recruited in research organizations, the administrative staff are not in a position to carry out a research activity that requires practically full time Someone who has done a good postdoc, after four years is disadvantaged by the number of courses they have to take. Biology students, for example, come to science by default: either because they missed medicine, or because they didn’t they have been accepted into BTS. or IUT, which are selective Jean-Marc Egly The result is that we no longer have the teachers of before or the students of before. Students today are no longer motivated. They come to investigate because they don’t know what else to do and no one wants to see it, least of all the senior lecturers. Biology students, for example, come to science by default: either because they failed medicine, or because they were not accepted into BTS or IUT, which are selective. In college we get these students back and you can’t do miracles. They have neither the motivation nor the level that would be expected; therefore, they will not perform feats.Why are the top fifteen research establishments in the ranking Anglo-Saxon? What else do they have? It’s a very good comparison. Indeed, the system in Anglo-Saxon establishments is completely different from ours. Firstly, there are the salaries: if we compare with Switzerland, Germany or Anglo-Saxon countries, the French salaries represent half, the second point is that in the Anglo-Saxon countries, doing research, having contracts, having publications, having patents made, represents a real challenge and it is well recognized. All this, then, is rewarded with a certain respect: we receive bonuses, we get promotions. In the French research system, none of this is possible. Whether you work well or not, it comes down to the same thing. In France, the unions don’t want us to give bonuses and say that someone is better than another; we are in the stage of “it was not unworthy!” Anglo-Saxons, on the contrary, want excellence and competence. In the US, if you’re one of the best and you’re a tenured professor at a Minnesota university and you produce beautiful things, you can very well claim Harvard, Berkeley or Stanford, with credits that will go up and salaries to match. In France, period, there is neither attractiveness, nor mobility nor promotion, we are still a bit competitive because the French spirit is fantastic, but we are no longer attractive Jean-Marc Egly there are funding problems. Universities and research organizations hire but do not provide the means to work. For this reason, France no longer recruits foreigners or very few: they are recruited but not given funding. Let’s look at the Pasteur Institute which can be an example: it almost no longer hires Anglo-Saxon researchers or researchers from northern countries (Germany) . , Holland, Sweden, etc.). In the United States, we give a position and a lot of money for five years, so you can build your own team and hire, with the understanding that you will also have to find money on your own for the rest. We are still a bit competitive because the French spirit is fantastic, but we are no longer attractive under these conditions Do you think that the objectives of the programming law will allow France to gain more in the ranking? Would the situation require a much bigger change? A much bigger change is needed. They are just patches that each minister adds as he pleases. We need a comprehensive reform of the university. The university wants to manage research, but those who have been running the university for fifteen years have never integrated research. There is no university president who has received a major award (Nobel Prize, Fields Medal). Those who are, can be excellent managers but are far from the world of research because they have not experienced it on a daily basis and at an international level. They have not faced international meetings and often have a lack of knowledge of what is done in other places and of the competitive dimension of research. When I was a student, it was the big bosses who came to teach. From now on, they register for their courses. It is the assistant professor or fellow who teaches in his place. for this we need trainers, that is to say teachers who are also researchers and who also have research teams and this species is in danger of extinction. Those who are professors, at least in the life sciences, do not have a research team. When I was a student, it was the big bosses who came to teach. From now on they download their lessons, which is a shame and shouldn’t be possible. It is the assistant professor or fellow who teaches in his place. We don’t know if they teach good or bad lessons. Teaching a good course is making students vibrate – all my colleagues came to research because they had a teacher who made them vibrate, so there needs to be a complete reform of the university – all teachers should be researchers or less (and that he did it). have) substantial research activity. We talk about professor-researcher but it’s a ski. There should no longer be a distinction between an organization’s research director and a professor. There should be a general obligation to take courses regardless of your status, Nobel laureate or young recruit. A dozen hours of compulsory classes would be enough for everyone, the internet will make up for the rest. We also need to increase salaries: make salaries competitive, just like in Germany or Scandinavia; no more but at least the same. If we are hiring from now on, we have to give something to work for. Now we recruit for a project but we don’t give the money to do the project: researchers spend a year or two finding funding, and in today’s international competition, the project quickly becomes obsolete.
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