Why is it so difficult for politicians to understand scientific research?

First published in french in Médecine et Sciences

Research funding suffers from well-known but not understood by generations of politicians’ issues. We are still far from the 3% of GDP required to get back on the saddle and which are occasionally promised before one election or another. However, even those who complain that the rank of France is declining in terms of publications, fail to say that the budget / number of publications ratio is strictly linear. Countries with higher percentages of investment (Japan, Germany, Sweden, South Korea, Taiwan) are growing rapidly and even overtaking us. It must be said that with only 4 or 5 deputies in the National Assembly with some experience in the field of science and elites graduating from the National School of Administration (ENA), who often have no experience in this field, the world of research is little or badly defended by decision-makers and the research budget is often used as an adjustment variable.

In addition, the distribution of scarce resources is problematic. When the National Research Agency (ANR) was created, following the “Save Research” movement (January 2004), it was initially a question of financing projects without touching the operating budgets of the institutions. The authorities have decided to focus funding on the “excellence” of selected projects, to the detriment of recurrent funding! The harmful effects of exclusively project-based funding are known: the increase in fixed-term contracts, which makes this profession unliveable for young people, “acute administration” : as the late André Brahic said, “half researchers spend their time filling out applications that the other half waste a lot of time reading ”. With a funding rate of around 10-15%, this is simply insane economically. Then there is the accumulation of wealth, with a few teams that have all the funding (ERC + ANR, etc.) and others nothing, in a (falsely) Darwinian approach dear to the head of the CNRS.

The concern here is not moral but falls within the realm of the use of taxpayer money. The “excellence” teams continue to do with more resources what they did before without taking any risks, to stay in line with the hyped topics. Moreover, the definition of “excellence” is like in fashion: it sometimes goes out of fashion! The real discoveries, those which allow conceptual leaps, come from the convergence of low-impact work, carried out by teams who, without necessarily publishing in so-called journals of excellence, provide basic data, from which some will open new avenues. History teaches us that major breakthroughs that make a conceptual leap, such as treatments for drug-resistant diseases, come from the unforeseen. Surprisingly, Boris Johnson seems to have understood the importance of risk, his chancellor having said that 1billion pounds of the budget would be earmarked for “high risk” projects ( https: // www.lemonde.fr/economie/article/2020/03/12/le-royaume-uni-tourne-lapage-de-l-austerite_6032744_3234.html ). Sometimes good decisions do not come from where we expect them!

There is also a deja-vu in this fascination of politicians for big plans, launched to solve a disease or to help understand the functioning of the human brain – cancer plans, Alzheimer’s, Human Brain Project, etc… -, with a price/quality ratio largely questionable. Finally, there is the importance of understanding that research operates with long kinetics, emergency action never suits it. The examples of yoyo funding of virology research is excellently described by virologist Bruno Canard, CNRS research director in Aix-Marseille : decision-makers, realizing the importance of virology work at the time of the outbreak of a pandemic and then forgetting to save money… We must hope that this will not be the case when the Covid-19 pandemic will be done! The latest speeches by the President of the Republic hint at this possibility, and the appointment of a high scientific council (finally!) seems to indicate a shift in funding for scientific research. Public support for doctors and researchers has been crucial. The decision to put an additional 5 billion euros in research over 10 years is a step in the right direction, even if we are still far from 3% of GDP. It is to be hoped that these promises will be kept and followed through and that this windfall will not be restricted to particular areas.

Finally, a subject widely debated and rightly criticized by our colleagues concerns the research tax credit (CIR), which exceeds 6 billion euros per year. To learn that supermarkets are receiving tens of millions, as such, poses two problems: that of evaluating what has been done as research work with the CIR obtained and we are amazed to discover the weakness of this evaluation we know the multiple evaluations to which public research researchers are subjected. The second problem is the inability to separate small start-ups (and SMEs) from behemoths, who have found an easy way to save money thanks to our taxes! But make no mistake about my point: do not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Small companies, like the ones I started (see below) recruit researchers and engineers on open-ended contracts, often to do basic research. The solution would therefore to limit the sums paid (from 1 to 5 million euros?) and to check that the company does indeed R&D and contributes to reducing unemployment among researchers and engineers, often without an outlet in the public sectors.

A more personal conclusion

After having worked for 40 years at CNRS and Inserm, helped create the Alfred Fessard neurobiology institute (Gif-sur-Yvette), then designed and built an Inserm reference center in neuroscience (Inmed in Marseille), the only possibility that was offered to me when I retired was to happily enjoy it, go and sunbathe, while keeping a nice office at Inmed, but without public funding and without my research teams. This could be done under good financial conditions, in particular through the sale of product licenses / patents relating to autism. So, I moved to private premises in order to continue my research on the progress of maternity and diseases of brain development, taking risks because no longer dependent on ANR contracts or grants from the European Research Council (ERC), etc. Building on our promising success with the first autism trials, I therefore decided to use all the financial means available to continue my work in a private setting, with the twenty researchers, engineers and technicians recruited in the start-ups I created for this. I have also created a non-profit fund to do research that I think is essential in terms of public health. The Ben-Ari Institute of Neuroarchaeology (IBEN), which we are going to build, will combine fundamental and applied research to study maternity, the precocity of warning signs of neurological and psychiatric diseases. It also aims to test innovative therapeutic approaches, the clinical successes of today funding the discoveries of tomorrow. The future will tell if this approach actually opens up a new way of doing science.


  1. Ben-Ari is founder and president of Neurochlore, a start-up dedicated to the development of a treatment for autism and diseases brain development.

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