Are young scientists still needed ?

At the end of April 1995, a long document, entitled " Doctoral Training: what is at stake, what has been achieved, what we propose" (often referred to as the "rapport HotDocs" or HOTDOCS report) was put together by doctoral students and young researchers from all over France through the Internet. The text is an overview of doctoral training available in France today, how it works and future employment prospects. The main crux of the main facts and thoughts included in the document take as their focus the evolution of the Higher Education and research sector in France and links with the economic sector. As the text itself is rather long, below is a summary of the guiding principals we adopted in drawing up the report.

The national consultation initiative on research in 1994gif showed how the French higher Education and research sector must adapt to reflect the wider changes bought about by the worldwide economic crisis, in which technological development and strict economic competition seem to govern everything else. These economic pressures are compounded by the growing social crisis in every part of society, perhaps especially in the educational system. The widening of access to French universities, coupled with the problem of youth unemployment, makes restructuring of the Higher Education sector - and by extension, the research sector - a great necessity.

This restructuring should focus upon doctoral programs, given that this training will prepare not only the future teaching and research staff in universities, but also the kind of innovative managers vital for industrial development.

Our propositions are aimed at restructuring French academic life, in order to create a new dynamic and a closer relationship with the industrial sector. We have identified three main areas for action:

Above all, the dual focus on the acquisition of theoretical knowledge and the mastering of operational applications must be maintained. This duality is increasingly vital as technological advances mean that purely practical training quickly becomes obsolete. Such a theoretical basis should become the cornerstone for the development of a policy of continuing education.

Unfortunately, French universities suffer from an image problem which means that they are badly understood by society at large: they have failed to ascribe themselves clearly-defined missions, they lack funding and resources, they have no long-term funding strategy, there appears to be a never-ending turnover in personnel. These perceived limitations mean that the university sector is at present ill-equipped to respond to the actions outlined above. The highest form of training, the PhD, would appear to be particularly vulnerable, given that the job situation for post-graduates looks to worsen from 1996 onwards. In the best possible projection (See the HOTDOCS report, chapter 3), around 1700 students over a flux slightly above 10000/year completing doctorates will be hard pressed to find employment in 1996 and 1997. We predict that if such a situation were to continue, the consequences will be disastrous - a spectacular "brain drain" may occur, with many students leaving to take up post-doc contracts abroad. For example, recent estimations by our group show that at least 4000 young French PhDs live on postdoctoral positions in 1996, mostly abroad. The real number may probably be around 5000. Known estimates give more than 6000 in year 1998, to be compared with 3000 academic positions each year in France and to 1500 jobs taken by PhD's in year 1995. The situation is therefore rather critical.

This will of course damage the already flagging motivation of reasearchers and teachers working in universities and research institutes. The policy of research training in place for the last decade would effectively be rendered useless and all hope of major reform would be lost. The knock-on effect would be a harmful lack of technological transfer to the industrial and tertiary sectors.

Doctorates are greatly undervalued in the private sector, making it extremely difficult for young doctors to find jobs. As we say, only 1500 doctors are recruited by the private sector each year. It seems to us that the fact that many companies believe PhDs to be exclusively academic in focus is a major block to post-graduate recruitment. Moreover, the structure of doctoral training often lacks a clear focus which would make it better understood by the non-academic world: subjects are badly defined, wider research support is lacking or inadequate, laboratories or research group fail to include post-grads in their social or scientific work, no links with the extra-academic world are afforded the student.

All this leads to a waste of human resources and of public and private funding (via PhD fellowships). Doctoral students cannot play a full part in the development of the higher education sector, and are also lost to the industrial sector, also in dire need of innovation.

Our propositions to remedy this situation revolve around two main assertions:

The notion of a " thesis contract" is the cornerstone of the propositions made in the HOTDOCS report. A clear and coherent scientifically-expressed project binds the doctoral student, the thesis supervisor and the directorate of the research unit. In terms of the thesis being viewed as training in a professional setting, the contract should be formulated in such a way that financial support, of institutional, industrial, or mixed origin, is given for each specific accepted project research post. At present it is possible for a student to work on a doctorate unfunded (it appears that actually 19 % of PhDs are unfunded). Finally, the contract will only be of any value to the student if it is used by the other partners to evaluate their role in the doctoral training process. We would therefore suggest that any overall evaluation of researchers, lecturers carrying out research and research groups or labs should include an evaluationgif of any thesis contracts in which they are engaged.

Furthermore, the extension of PhDs to the non-academic setting (industry, administration etc) and the changes within the university sector itself, mean that alternative forms of advanced training are needed. This training should comprise:

The Centres d'Initiation L'Enseignement Supérieur (CIES), which could be translated by ``Centers for Training in Higher Education'' and which were established in 1992, would be a natural place for such interdisciplinary training. Indeed their role will increase in importance as future university staff have to confront constant evolution in the workplace and have to fill increasingly varied roles as lecturers who also undertake research. Some of the training offered by these centers will also be useful for future high-level management in the industrial sector. Their training will be rounded off by thesis research and more specialised training available in graduate schools. Doctoral or graduate schools such as the CIES offer an interesting way ahead for Higher Education, given the way in which they are the result of federal cooperation between several universities. At a city-wide or county level, they could provide a model of diversified training for first- and second-level undergraduate work without resources having to be thinly spread between several institutions.

Finally, the widening of access to higher education, as well as the smooth running of research centres, both rely on a regular and well constructed recruitment policy. Such investment in human resources needs material resources also: recruiting high-quality people without providing good working conditions is a non-sense. It must be noted that such good conditions have not always been forthcoming. We stress that clarification is needed with regard to the financial means which should be afforded to the Higher Education and research system in the next few years, as well as with regard to the missions which this system should fulfill.

About this document ...

This document was generated using the LaTeX2HTML translator Version 95.1 (Fri Jan 20 1995) Copyright © 1993, 1994, Nikos Drakos, Computer Based Learning Unit, University of Leeds.

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The translation was initiated by Pascal DEGIOVANNI on Fri May 2 12:24:10 MET DST 1997

Initiated by François Fillon, scientific reseaurch minister from 1993 to 1995.

France has a somehow unique bi-component Higher Education system in which, besides universities, specific high schools provide high quality education to their students. For various historical reasons, these schools are traditionnally used by industries and high level civil administrative corps for recruitment.

French researchers belonging to government agencies such as CNRS or INRIA are regularily evaluated by a national refereeing comitee. These practises now extend, in a slightly different manner, to the universities themsleves which have their public ressources fixed through a four year contract with the Higher Education and Research Minister.

Fri May 2 12:24:10 MET DST 1997