opinion | Let’s stop doing “normal researchers”.

Posted January 13, 2023, 12:19 p.m

Research is expensive, of course, but even more so when researchers have less and less time to devote to it. It is not enough to give more money to breathe new life into French research if researchers do not have working conditions conducive to creativity.

Creativity in research often depends on a limited number of researchers, but to thrive they must live in dynamic laboratories with colleagues, engineers and technicians who together contribute to the attractiveness of these research and development spaces.

Is it the same now? I’m not sure. The Nobel Prize for the works of the last decade of the last century should not serve to cover up the present reality. The atmosphere in laboratories is often slow, researchers are overwhelmed by the so-called administrative tasks, which are increasingly common in the context of intense meetings.

Researchers are tired

The increasing capabilities of the digital world have increased the punching power of bureaucracy almost exponentially. Every service now has the ability to send information requests to thousands of searchers, unlike in the world of typewriters and mail.

Every department wants to have its own databases, “observables,” “activity repositories,” “temporary calendars,” Gantt charts, and other innovations to feed everything that gives the impression of control, to standardize research and researchers.

The Nobel Prize for the works of the last decade of the last century should not serve to cover up the present reality.

Political decision-makers who have little contact with the world of research entrust this area to “managers” who do not understand the way of thinking inherent in the scientific approach, and make as many rules as possible. And the risk is great to see the most creative researchers of each generation grow weary and withdraw from research.

From management to bureaucracy

Can we imagine that young talent is attracted to research because it is a certain, standardized universe? What is important to him is the freedom to explore new scientific fields and participate in breakthrough research! RNA vaccine was not the “norm” before Covid-19, now it is a new paradigm in vaccinology. No French Theodule committee had the intention of proposing an inquiry into the subject. Now when it comes to doing it, it happens on the TGV!

What to do? On the one hand, the political world should dare to increase the relations with the world of research. Governments of countries that want to promote dynamic research surround themselves with scientific advisors selected from among the most talented researchers. This is the case in the United States, and China has many high-ranking academics in the highest authorities. On the other hand, we will have to dare to distinguish between management, necessity, and the bureaucracy that hinders the functioning of institutions. It takes courage to distinguish between useful and useless, the easiest way is to say yes to everything. All these criticisms of working conditions in research laboratories also apply to teaching conditions in universities. For teacher-researchers, this is a double punishment!

Create a favorable ecosystem

Each generation comes with its own creative talents, but the research ecosystem must be conducive to their recruitment and development.

How much time is left for researchers to imagine new experiments and teacher-researchers to develop new courses? Little or no, many young talents look outside of France to find better working conditions. Without far-reaching reforms, our country risks losing competitiveness in research and innovation, which are closely linked. Pasteur, whose birth we celebrated two hundred years ago, showed us the way again.

Bernard Miller does Member of the Academy of Sciences.

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