French climate scientists criticise Macron’s call for foreign researchers
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French President Emmanuel Macron made global headlines in June when he called on foreign scientists to join his “Make Our Planet Great Again” project on fighting climate change. But in France, not all researchers are happy about the invite.
Just one month into his tenure, the young French leader announced the launch of “Make Our Planet Great Again” – a research initiative meant to put France on the map in the global fight against climate change. Macron, whose administration made YouTube videos and set up a website to promote the project, called on foreign researchers, and in particular US-based scientists, to come to France to pursue their work, promising them not only financial backing but also a safe and supportive working environment.
The initiative was seen as a direct rebuke of US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the 2015 Paris accord on global warming, and included around 50 research grants lasting a minimum of three years and worth between €1 million to €1.5 million each.
Macron’s appeal to the international scientific community seems to have paid off. At the end of September, a total of 255 scientists from 41 countries – 42 percent of them Americans and 62 percent working in the US – had applied for the grants; an initial selection process left around 90 people in the running.
‘Gifted researchers in France’
But while France’s national research agency, the CNRS (Le Centre national de la recherche scientifique), is patting itself on the back over the sheer number, as well as the high quality, of the applicants, some French researchers are critical of the project, describing it as nothing but a PR stunt pulled by the president to boost France’s image abroad. The expertise already exists but the funding for such research in France is scarce.
“We already have very gifted researchers in France, especially in the domain that deals with global warming. Some of them are members of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), which proves we have nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to our scientific performance,” Olivier Berné, an astrophysicist at CNRS, told FRANCE 24 in an interview. Instead, Berné said, the government should invest in “a fairer and more ambitious project when it comes to research and higher education in France”.
Berné also cast doubt on the government’s real motives behind the project. “These funds were already earmarked for future research programmes and so there was no particular effort on their part,” he said.
“We’re spending €60 million on a fairly non-pertinent project at a time when this money could have been better spent on, for example, universities,” he said. “For us, this is difficult to swallow, and it doesn’t correspond to the boost we were expecting [from the government]. If France is an attractive country with a high quality of scientific research, it’s because of the model we have – with permanent staff positions and which offers a certain quality of life. But this model is in danger today.”
Anne Peyroche, director general of the sciences department at CNRS and who is in charge of the “Make Our Planet Great Again” initiative, argued, however, that the quality of the applicants is reason enough for France to want to continue with the project.
“There are clearly some very high-profile applications among those we’ve received,” she said. “It wasn’t obvious to me that we would be able to attract researchers of this standard, especially considering the salaries we have in France. But these are people who feel that the conditions in which they are working today have deteriorated – something that is rather worrying, considering the situation in the United States. This (the applications) also confirms something we already knew: that our institutions are renowned internationally.”
Out of the 255 applications received thus far, more than 50 have been filed by senior researchers with more than 12 years of experience.
“You have to see the president’s call as an opportunity for our institutions because the circulation of expertise is always a good thing,” she said.
“These researchers will bring with them their culture, their ways of working and their ways of seeing things. But above all, they will help develop new projects that are interesting for our institutions. All this will result in positive exchanges right at the centre of our research ecosystem and which should bring about new collaborations with foreign institutions,” she said.
Macron is expected to announce the winners of the grants on December 12, exactly two years after 198 nations – including the United States – struck the landmark climate deal in Paris.