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French researchers face winter of discontent

Entering a power struggle with their national government, more than 2,000 senior French researchers resigned from their managerial duties on 9 March, protesting the “planned destruction of France’s research capacity.” The revolt proceeded in spite of last-minute conciliatory attempts by the president of the Academy of Sciences, and pleas from Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin not to “weaken the country’s international scientific reputation.”

The mass resignation topped off months of protests, sparked in January by a web petition called Let’s Save Research. The petition, signed by nearly 70,000 researchers, accused the French government of shutting down the public research sector despite previous promises to strengthen it. Cut or frozen funds, petitioners claimed, have left institutes such as the Institute for Health and Medical Research (INSERM) on the verge of bankruptcy, and young researchers desperate for jobs.

“Dramatic budget cuts and freezes have built frustration,” says Gérard Friedlander, who resigned as head of a physiology lab at INSERM.What set the protests in motion, he says, was the sudden cancellation of hundreds of permanent positions, most of them already promised to postdoctoral fellows ready to return from abroad.

After trade unions joined the fight, the government,eager to prevent protests before the elections, made some concessions. It released €294 million that had been ‘frozen’, resurrected 120 of 550 permanent positions cancelled last year, added 300 temporary posts, promised salary increases and invited rebel representatives to a conference on the future of French research.

Raffarin also promised to set aside an extra €3 billion for research between 2005 and 2007.

But the government refused to budge on one key demand—reversing course on converting hundreds of permanent positions into three- and five-year employment contracts.

Such contracts, says research minister Claudie Haigneré, are common in many countries and will provide much-needed recruitment flexibility for short-term research projects.

But the problem is the lack of options once the contracts end, says biologist Bruno Goud, group leader at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris and one of the protest organizers. “The government has no plan for what happens next,” Goud says.

The resignations are unlikely to be accepted by institute directors,which makes them largely symbolic. Protest organizers have promised large street protests in Paris on 19 March if the government does not meet their demands. In the meantime, they have called on their colleagues to refuse research evaluations and halt communication with the Ministry of Research.

With many European budgets in retreat, French researchers are not the only ones taking to the streets. In Italy, plans to turn permanent research positions into three- or five-year contracts ignited days of protest on university campuses. And in the UK, university teachers and students held strikes and demonstrations over failed pay negotiations and plans to allow some universities to raise their fees.

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