By @jfschaff, on 2023-12-19

First published on July 25, 2023 in French on LinkedIn. Adapted into English with the help of ChatGPT

The Condition of Young Researchers in France Is Deplorable and Continues to Deteriorate

I felt a great unease at the sight of this post that evokes a topic that is close to my heart!

Some context: it is published by a Partner of a large consulting firm. This gentleman may earn around €300k, €500k in gross income, maybe €1M+ in good years if he is a Senior.

He takes up a former student-researcher who complains about the low salaries of young researchers and has the bad idea of denigrating the work of these firms and that of large companies C-level executives. It is clear that the initial post is humorous, but it is taken literally by the Partner.

And the Partner’s response is clear:

We create so much value that we deserve our high salaries.

What I don't contest. There is indeed a lot of value created by running large companies and optimizing their operations, which the big five and other consulting firms do. These professions do not deserve to be denigrated.

The discomfort comes with the underlying implicit message:

A Ph.D. wouldn't deserve more than €30k gross per year because, according to this perspective, they would create almost no value.

That's where the GREAT UNEASE appears.

This idea has been in the minds of our political leaders since at least the Sarkozy era and has had disastrous consequences for the French academic world.

I would like to talk to you about it through the prism of the condition of young researchers in France, which I know well from being a Ph.D. student from 2008 to 2011, then a postdoc in Vienna, Austria, until 2014, before working in a French startup closely connected to the academic world until 2018, in the Bordeaux region.

A clear message is needed, so here it is:

The Condition of Young Researched in France is Deplorable

And "condition" means salary first, but also the state of the universities, the resources allocated for them to be able to do their work in good conditions. For an experimenter, it could mean having access to around €100k at the beginning of their career to start an experiment.

Researchers don't talk about it because they don't know anything else. The young ones are not well informed; they follow their passion. It takes time for them to realize where they have landed. When their friends, who chose different paths, start earning twice their salary just a few years later... When their colleagues in other countries progress while they remain stuck in situations of uncomfortable poverty both personal and within their hosting structures.

To illustrate this situation, remember the “grand debate” that followed the yellow vests protests in France. It ended with a "Grand Debate of Ideas with Intellectuals.”

One thing had struck me then: the interventions of two big names in my research field, quantum physics. Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, Nobel Prize 1997, and Serge Haroche, Nobel Prize 2012.

Each "intellectual" (especially researchers) present that day had the opportunity to bring a single topic to the President. Both, who know each other well and had coordinated in preparing their interventions, had chosen to challenge the President on the same subject: the condition of young researchers.

During this exchange on the subject dating back to March 2019, Serge Haroche said:

Among the handicaps we suffer, there are first [...] the unacceptable conditions at the start of the careers of young researchers. There is also the lack of recurrent funding for laboratories and the growing difficulty in retaining internationally renowned researchers in France. These issues affect both fundamental and applied research.

France is still far from dedicating 3% of its GDP to research, as it committed to in Lisbon almost 20 years ago.

Then Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, a few moments later:

Unfortunately, now I meet more and more young men and young women [...] who would like to pursue a career in research, and who [...] are quickly discouraged by the difficulty of obtaining a position — there are fewer and fewer — and by the difficulty, once they have obtained a position, after several years, of no longer having recurrent funding to carry out experiments.

I believe that we need to correct this situation because I sincerely think that supporting research, supporting the young people who want to pursue it, is the best investment our country can make.

Why this dual challenge on the same topic?

Because they are intelligent. They have worked on their subject, reflected on it, and they have come to the conclusion that it is the single most important issue to bring to the presidential table. Perhaps the only one that truly matters for the future.

Without improvement, French research is condemned within the next 10 to 20 years.

I fear that, if nothing is done to reverse this trend, our research will continue to decline. Consequently, in the years to come, we will have much less Nobel Prize winners, much less Fields Medals, and any other objective indicators will be in the red.

Fundamental research generates a return on investment that is difficult to perceive because it comes late.

Here is an example: the transistor. It is at the foundation of all modern electronics. The story may begin with Faraday in 1833, who discovers what will later be called semiconductivity. It continues with successive advances in knowledge in 1839, 1879, and then between the two wars. In 1947, Bardeen, Shockley, and Brattain discover the transistor effect. After World War II, the first companies are created.

Today, the corresponding global market is measured in trillions of dollars per year.

This market simply wouldn't exist without the initial fundamental research. Consider how different our world would be.

Continuing to undermine fundamental research, especially by not adequately compensating young researchers, is a historical mistake.

Another example: the laser. The basic phenomenon is predicted by Einstein in 1917. Advances in 1950, then in 1953, leading to the laser in 1960. Today, it is the basis of countless applications in all industries.

The same goes for nuclear research: the bomb, then civil applications and power plants, and today controlled fusion, etc.

To think that the only way to measure the value of a human activity is to measure the added value produced in the year, or in the next 5 years, is a monumental folly.

Continuing to undermine fundamental research, especially by not adequately compensating the young, which drives them to pursue other paths, and exclusively funding short-term applications as is the case currently (5 to 10 years), is a historical mistake.

I don't know if French academia will recover from this. It might already be too late.