She has not worked in France for a long time, but she ardently wishes that her country of origin continued to shine in the sky of science. Emmanuelle Charpentier, co-recipient of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with American Jennifer Doudna for the invention of the Crispr-CAS9 genetic scissors, has never hesitated to invest his energies in advancing French research. When the Bettencourt-Schueller Foundation asked her to be the godmother of a new Impulsscience award designed to support mid-level scientists, the microbiologist and geneticist immediately agreed. “This is the support that I would like to take, because my recognition came later,” she explains. On the occasion of the presentation of the seven laureates of this award, Emmanuelle Charpentier gave one of her (rare) interviews to L’Express magazine. She talks about the advantages, but also about the difficulties of organizing research in our country, about the need to better meet foreign scientists and, conversely, not to be afraid of a brain drain…
L’Express: France spends 2.3% of its GDP on research, compared to 3.04% in Germany, where you’ve lived for over a decade. How do you explain such a gap compared to such a close country?
Emmanuelle Charpentier: We must not forget that Angela Merkel was in power for sixteen years and that she was a scientist by education, like her husband. They must have counted! In France, there has been an obvious and acute need for decades to significantly increase the budget for science. But it’s not just about money. There’s also the way it’s spent and structural differences with a lot of organizations, which means we have a very fragmented funding system here. But for all that, I’m not convinced that Germany is more productive than France, despite a larger public research budget.
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During these three years of the pandemic, it has been quite frustrating to note that in France, as well as elsewhere in Europe, the promised efforts to increase the amount allocated to research as well as hospitals have not necessarily materialized. Responding faster to emergencies and overcoming certain difficulties is indeed a challenge for the future.
It is with the Covid-19 pandemic that Europe has shown that it has not made much headway either in developing a vaccine or in conducting large-scale clinical trials. Is it really that difficult on this scale?
The picture should not be overshadowed: French and European research is excellent in many ways, even if the ecosystems are still very different from the United States, which can be more reactive and more aggressive. On the Old Continent, the weight of structures and the lack of any kind of versatility make things difficult to move, and the gap is unfortunately widening on both sides of the Atlantic. However, it would be harmful if these differences in culture and mentality were exacerbated. On the contrary, we should try to stay competitive with international research.
What do you think are the priorities for increasing the attractiveness of French studies?
Undoubtedly, French studies have developed over the past twenty years, but probably not enough. On the one hand, he allows his scientists to have the freedom to work, offering them a unique stability in the world; on the other hand, it does not give them a very attractive salary, especially for those who live in big cities where the cost of living is higher. Thus, it is necessary to create a dynamic adaptation to different situations, and not a single and identical status for all. Now I think things will evolve on their own because the younger generation of researchers who have different aspirations and are not necessarily in the academic system are putting pressure on the systems to develop in ways that make them more attractive and more suitable.
“In Germany, the approach is more individualistic”
What is too complicated in the French system?
Again, I’m not sure that such a clear distinction needs to be made. In France, as in other countries, bureaucracy leads to the greatest aggravation by the establishment of ever new rules. They are not all bad, but they interfere with our work. These tasks are too complex and time consuming: the researcher should not spend most of their time solving financial, logistical or human problems. I also face this pressure on a daily basis in Germany due to administrations that end up making lab leaders responsible, systems that are overly complex and do not meet the needs of researchers, and difficulties in recruiting qualified support staff. In France, as elsewhere in Europe, there are often too many committees that evaluate each other’s work. It is important to evaluate research by competent and independent bodies, but all this would benefit from simplicity and rationality. We all need a little more time to do our jobs.
In France in particular, even if my experience is just beginning, I would say that research is more collective than in Germany: there are many institutions (CNRS, Inserm, Inrae, etc.) and researchers often have several associations that lead them to work in different conditions. “Working together” and “pooling funds” seem to be more common than in Germany, where the approach is more individual.
Does this lead to more exploratory creativity this side of the Rhine?
I tend to think that French studies are getting more and more creative. This makes it attractive: look who runs our laboratories and you will see that there are many foreigners here. It seems to be less relevant in Germany. For us, this is strength. I know we talk a lot about brain drain here. But it’s not. The wealth of a country’s research also depends on the number of foreign scientists it welcomes. Conversely, when a French researcher like me is abroad, he is an ambassador for the excellence of French teaching. And besides, many abroad think that I work in France! There are no borders in science and you can also succeed in your scientific career with a course that transcends borders – I myself have traveled to Paris, New York, Vienna, Umeå (Sweden), Braunschweig-Hannover and thus today Berlin. Research is increasingly a mixture of cultures, nationalities, ways of working. The United States, which has a tradition of hospitality since its early years at the University, has understood this well, and therefore it is also at the top.
On the other hand, a problem can arise when a recognized French talent wants to return to France, but does not receive an offer that matches his request.
“The fact that I did not return has nothing against France”
Is this your case?
I could return to France, and on terms that would probably be more modest than you can imagine. My time has become very limited for research, so this somewhat challenges my past ambitions, which have changed a bit. And it’s not always easy to be an explorer abroad, even if you have some freedom there. For example, the language barrier. I am amazed to see foreign winners who receive a prize or donation and who speak French when I have lived beyond the Rhine for many years and my German is minimal … Finally, there is also the syndrome of people who have stayed too long. abroad: fear of being a foreigner in one’s own country. The fact that I did not return means nothing against France. I have received proposals, in particular from my parent organization [NDLR : l’Institut Pasteur]which offered me different opportunities during my career, but was always a bit out of the ordinary.
We have talked about research and its predominantly public funding, but there are also private entities such as the Betancourt-Schüller Foundation, which has just launched a new program called Impulse Science, which you sponsor. What motivates you in this process?
The Bettencourt-Schueller Foundation wanted to address changing needs and increase support for research. For example, researchers need time and long-term funding. How many scientists I have seen in the last fifteen years have created their own team before leaving academic research in France, Austria, Germany or Sweden. In our universe, it’s not easy to start, but it’s even harder to continue. [NDLR : en France, un projet de recherches est financé en moyenne autour de 450 000 euros sur trois ans]. There, the new Impulsscience program annually provides support to seven researchers, accompanying them for five years, up to 2.3 million euros. And this is in all areas of the life sciences. It is very important that the Bettencourt-Schueller Foundation continues to support mid-level researchers. I myself would like to have such support at the same time. My confession came later. The paths are different and unique from one explorer to another.
You’re making comparisons, but what’s the difference between you, the researchers of your generation, and those who come into the lab today?
We always tend to think that everything was better before. But yes, there are big differences: I am quite amazed at the ease of expression of today’s young researchers, although I remember being shaken a lot when I had to present my science to my professors. Then young people will have much more information to manage on a daily basis. We didn’t have a smartphone and our screen time was much more limited. Today they are much more in demand and have to integrate a rather incredible amount of information. With all these social networks, perhaps the new generation is exposed to too much good and not so much information in a very short time (you need to be able to figure it out), and everything is very long, we need time, patience, focus, involvement, perseverance and perseverance. Our generations are difficult to compare.
Since receiving the Nobel Prize, you say that you have been working on the concept of finding new ways to develop science. Can you tell us more?
I did create a framework, but I’m taking the time to see how I can best use it. The idea is to “give away”. I evaluate what is being done at the moment and how I could either help existing structures (that I have already started) or start something new by giving time, money, advice based on what I have experienced and what I feel close to . heart. But this approach still requires a certain maturity.
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