France's Brain Drain

Writing recently in The Telegraph, columnist Mark Steyn noted that the ongoing riots in France and neighboring countries are likely to exacerbate Europe's demographic woes.  'Europe could face a continent—wide version of the 'white flight' phenomenon seen in crime—ridden American cities during the 1970s, as Danes and Dutch scram to America, Australia or anywhere else that will have them,' Steyn said.

Those especially likely to leave include France's 160,000 scientists, who have long been frustrated by the difficulties of doing research in their native country.  In France the majority of scientists work for government—financed research institutes such as the prestigious Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), or National Center for Scientific Research, which employs 11,600 researchers and 14,400 engineers.  While such institutes are well—suited for doing 'big science' like the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor set to be built in southern France, they are tempting targets for budget cuts. In 2003, for example, the government eliminated 1,600 permanent jobs in its research institutes, replacing many of those fired with temporary postdocs.  It also sharply cut science funding and delayed disbursing previously earmarked funds. 

All of this has led to despair among France's scientists.  Things have gotten so bad that researchers have formed a movement called Sauvons la Recherche (Let's Save Research!), which last year collected nearly 70,000 signatures on a petition begging the French government to reassert its commitment to scientific research.  In addition, in March 2004 more than 2,000 research directors at CNRS and the Institute for Health and Medical Research resigned from their administrative responsibilities to protest the government's policies.  The French government has since restored some of the positions, but many scientists remain dissatisfied.

Unfortunately, finding a job and getting funding are only the start of the problems that French scientists face. The French scientific system, like the rest of the French economy, is riddled with bureaucracy and rigid hierarchies that stifle innovation and do not reward merit.  Researchers hired under government auspices become civil servants and have positions for life, regardless of performance.  This of course makes it extremely difficult for young researchers to get their foot in the door, let alone get their own laboratories.  

Typical of this trend is a young immunologist interviewed last year by The Scientist, a bi—weekly news magazine.  The immunologist, recently returned from a postdoc abroad, explained that in 2004 there were only five positions open in her field.  "I've been back for 6 months," she said, "and my only desire is to leave again. It saddens me because I was trained by France. We don't all want to settle abroad."

It's no wonder that many French scientists are heading for greener pastures outside of France.  Their destination of choice is the United States, where a talented researcher can work on the cutting edge of his chosen discipline, have more autonomy and earn three times or more what he could back home. Japan, Canada and Ireland are also popular destinations.

All of this was a problem before the current riots started.  As the unrest in France continues to spin out of control, the slow trickle of scientist émigrés promises to turn into a flood, robbing France of people it can least afford to lose. 

It would be sad indeed if the homeland of René Descartes, Marie Curie and Louis Pasteur became a scientific backwater.  There are still many pockets of excellence in the French scientific establishment, especially in the life sciences.  But the handwriting is on the wall.  Unless and until France gets a grip on its social problems, it will continue to fall behind its neighbors as well as the United States.

Jonathan Schlein is an attorney and speechwriter.  He publishes Philomathean.

Writing recently in The Telegraph, columnist Mark Steyn noted that the ongoing riots in France and neighboring countries are likely to exacerbate Europe's demographic woes.  'Europe could face a continent—wide version of the 'white flight' phenomenon seen in crime—ridden American cities during the 1970s, as Danes and Dutch scram to America, Australia or anywhere else that will have them,' Steyn said.

Those especially likely to leave include France's 160,000 scientists, who have long been frustrated by the difficulties of doing research in their native country.  In France the majority of scientists work for government—financed research institutes such as the prestigious Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), or National Center for Scientific Research, which employs 11,600 researchers and 14,400 engineers.  While such institutes are well—suited for doing 'big science' like the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor set to be built in southern France, they are tempting targets for budget cuts. In 2003, for example, the government eliminated 1,600 permanent jobs in its research institutes, replacing many of those fired with temporary postdocs.  It also sharply cut science funding and delayed disbursing previously earmarked funds. 

All of this has led to despair among France's scientists.  Things have gotten so bad that researchers have formed a movement called Sauvons la Recherche (Let's Save Research!), which last year collected nearly 70,000 signatures on a petition begging the French government to reassert its commitment to scientific research.  In addition, in March 2004 more than 2,000 research directors at CNRS and the Institute for Health and Medical Research resigned from their administrative responsibilities to protest the government's policies.  The French government has since restored some of the positions, but many scientists remain dissatisfied.

Unfortunately, finding a job and getting funding are only the start of the problems that French scientists face. The French scientific system, like the rest of the French economy, is riddled with bureaucracy and rigid hierarchies that stifle innovation and do not reward merit.  Researchers hired under government auspices become civil servants and have positions for life, regardless of performance.  This of course makes it extremely difficult for young researchers to get their foot in the door, let alone get their own laboratories.  

Typical of this trend is a young immunologist interviewed last year by The Scientist, a bi—weekly news magazine.  The immunologist, recently returned from a postdoc abroad, explained that in 2004 there were only five positions open in her field.  "I've been back for 6 months," she said, "and my only desire is to leave again. It saddens me because I was trained by France. We don't all want to settle abroad."

It's no wonder that many French scientists are heading for greener pastures outside of France.  Their destination of choice is the United States, where a talented researcher can work on the cutting edge of his chosen discipline, have more autonomy and earn three times or more what he could back home. Japan, Canada and Ireland are also popular destinations.

All of this was a problem before the current riots started.  As the unrest in France continues to spin out of control, the slow trickle of scientist émigrés promises to turn into a flood, robbing France of people it can least afford to lose. 

It would be sad indeed if the homeland of René Descartes, Marie Curie and Louis Pasteur became a scientific backwater.  There are still many pockets of excellence in the French scientific establishment, especially in the life sciences.  But the handwriting is on the wall.  Unless and until France gets a grip on its social problems, it will continue to fall behind its neighbors as well as the United States.

Jonathan Schlein is an attorney and speechwriter.  He publishes Philomathean.