A report on Monday (20 November) recommended reviewing the role of the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in its relationship with universities, while strengthening its financial viability to better retain the best researchers.
The report, commissioned by Hcéres (High Council for the Evaluation of Research and Higher Education), is the result of an evaluation committee of sixteen experts of ten nationalities.
'Leader in Europe'
He describes the public institution, established in 1939, as a "major research institution of world standing". And it readily recognises its role as a "leader in Europe" in terms of its reputation, its size (with the equivalent of 31,000 employees), and its scope via ten scientific institutes covering all fields of science (mathematics, physics, biology, social sciences, etc.). However, the committee chaired by Martin Vetterli, President of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, recommends reviewing its governance.
He believes that his board of directors "doesn't really play a strategic role", with many decisions "obviously predetermined" and made without transparency. The committee recommends the establishment of an "independent external advisory board" for scientific guidance, including a "high proportion of foreign members." He also wants the CNRS to review its role vis-à-vis universities.
'Hard to understand'
The CNRS is made up of a thousand research units, almost all of which are shared – within joint research units (UMR) – with universities, grandes écoles and other institutions. This mechanism of UMRs, a "unique situation" in the world, "does not promote agility", even though "research-intensive" universities have emerged, the report notes. He argues that the latter should be given "leadership on specific issues".
The report also advocates greater autonomy for UMRs, by strengthening the role of directors in the research of their unit, particularly in the allocation of resources. The current process of allocating these resources, via CNRS institutes, is "very difficult to understand," according to the report. There are a number of challenges to the stated objective of "attracting, supporting and retaining the best talent", particularly young researchers. The report points to a "continued deterioration in pay levels". And more generally, a "lack of financial viability" of the CNRS budget.
Three-quarters of this budget, which stood at $3.7 billion in 2021, is funded by grants. Deemed insufficient by the report, it should be a "major subject" of the CNRS's discussions with its supervisory body, the Ministry of Research and Higher Education. In particular, the latter should provide the CNRS with greater visibility on the expected evolution of its grant.
The committee also looked into the subject of human resources, evoking "strategic subjects" for what constitutes the "primary asset" of the CNRS. He points to the lack of a "structured talent development and career support plan", and even mandatory training on human resources skills. In this area, he recommends the development of a mentoring culture for young researchers. And mentions in passing the "challenge of dealing with underperforming staff".
Another challenge is to encourage CNRS researchers and engineers working in UMRs to contribute to teaching in the institutions that host them. The report also points to a real "bureaucratic burden", with administrative procedures "of increasing complexity and sometimes even absurdity", which constitute obstacles to research activity. Administrative tasks can absorb up to 50% of young researchers' time, according to several testimonies collected by the evaluation committee. The Hcéres committee carried out its evaluation with a mission to various CNRS institutes, after receiving a self-assessment report from the organisation. Hcéres is an independent public authority, created in 2013.