Originally from Hungary and raised in Germany, I first came to France in 1975 to do part of my medical training. After finishing my medical training in Germany, conducting some research in France, and doing a postdoc in the United States, I settled in France for good in 1995, becoming a professor of cell and molecular biology at the University of Bordeaux. Today, I am the director of a research department in tumor angiogenesis, which is affiliated with both the university and the French Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale (INSERM).
I have been successful partly because of my knowledge of the complexities of the French academic system. But I have seen many scientists who’ve only done research in the United Kingdom or in the United States move to France and struggle with the system’s peculiarities. All scientists planning a research career in France need to understand their new working context if they are to be successful in this country.
In France, public research takes place mainly within two types of institutions: at universities and at national research agencies, such as INSERM, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), and the Institut National de Recherche Agronomique (INRA). But joint departments ( unités mixtes) run by both national research agencies and universities (such as my own department) are also very common. University-based research is somewhat undervalued in France, so to be better recognized and funded, it is important for academics to be affiliated with one of the national research agencies.
The vocabulary for research groups can be misleading. In France, the large research units that pull together several groups working under a similar theme are usually called laboratoires. As such, the laboratoires are the French equivalent of the “departments” found in Anglo-Saxon countries. And what would be called a “laboratory” or “group” in the United Kingdom becomes une équipe in France.
Young scientists and scientific independence
Early-career scientists in France may be recruited for a permanent position such as a chargé de recherche in a national research agency or a maître de conférences in a university. Later in their careers, they may take the position of directeur de recherche in a research agency or of university professeur.
In principle, early-stage recruitment at both universities and research agencies may take place right after the Ph.D., but nowadays, some period of postdoctoral research abroad gives candidates the best chance of landing a job. Recruitment for positions within one of the national research agencies or the university system is centralized rather than done by the individual institutions. Positions are usually advertised between December and February.
A peculiarity of the French research system is that once a researcher gets a position, the position belongs to the individual rather than to the research group. This means that permanent researchers can easily move to groups in other departments within their national research agency or university system. That’s a big advantage for young scientists seeking a different working environment or new scientific opportunity.
Another peculiarity is that individual groups ( équipes) in both national research agencies and universities usually include several scientists with permanent positions. In fact, a group is only created when the leader is able to bring a minimum number of permanent scientists together. This contrasts with most other countries, where research is structured around a single principal investigator–the grant-holder–who, with few exceptions, recruits everyone else on a nonpermanent contract.
In France, then, researchers may obtain a permanent contract much earlier in their careers than in most other countries, but this does not necessarily mean earlier scientific independence. Most remain under the direction of a group leader. If they obtain their own funding for projects and staff, and their group leader gives them sufficient independence, then researchers may be able to set up subgroups. But for real independence, a researcher needs to apply for a group leader position.
Several programs have been initiated to help promote young investigators, such as the program at INSERM, which provides young scientists who already have a permanent position with fully equipped space within their host department and funding toward research expenses and salaries for nonpermanent staff for up to 5 years. Scientists without a permanent position may also apply and will be offered a salary.
Furthermore, whereas French research groups traditionally have received national public funding mostly through their own research agency or university and through specific calls from French ministries, several national agencies have been set up to fund more research projects on a nationwide competitive basis, such as the (ANR) or the. Scientists can directly apply to these agencies to get their research projects funded, and ANR has specifically launched a project funding call for young scientists ().
Senior scientists and group stability
Having several permanent researchers in a single group means that issues of research ownership frequently come up. One issue is publication credit. Because of the way research groups are structured, the group leader is not always the senior author: A specific research project may be carried out by a Ph.D. student supervised by another permanent scientist who may have little or no available funding but who may nevertheless request last authorship on the publication. This can have a negative impact on the publication record of the group leader. On the other hand, denying last authorship to other permanent scientists in the group would also hamper their career development. Thus, how authorship is attributed depends on the individual research team and may be a source of conflict.
Who owns the research also becomes critical when permanent scientists want to leave and take their projects with them. I had some research going in my lab on the mechanisms of endothelial cell migration that came to an abrupt halt for this reason. Because the project was initiated by the researcher who left, ownership was not an issue. But it can become much more of a headache when the leaving researcher has been working on projects the group leader initiated or greatly contributed to. Again, there are no specific rules governing how to handle this matter.
I believe there is a need to reevaluate the status of the permanent researchers and the group leaders. This would greatly help foster career development at all levels of the career ladder. Until then, however, laboratories can function quite well if there is good communication.
A system in transition
Since 2005, the French system has been undergoing profound reform with the new, which aims in particular to simplify the structure of academic research and give more independence to universities. For example, in the future, it is hoped that universities will be able to offer different teaching loads in accordance with the profile and career aspirations of the individual scientists. The pacte doesn’t clearly address the issue of permanent status, but I still believe it should improve the situation between group leaders and permanent researchers and increase competitiveness both within France and on a global scale.