This text is a translation of the testimony of Bruno Canard that was read at the end of the national demonstration “L’Université et la recherche s’arrêtent” [University and Research on hold] on March 5th 2020 in Paris.
My name is Bruno Canard, research director at the CNRS [the French National Research Institute] at Aix-Marseille Université. My research team works on RNA (ribonucleic acid) viruses, which include coronaviruses. In 2002, our young team was working on dengue fever, which got me invited to an international conference where we discussed coronaviruses, a large family of viruses that I did not yet know. Then, in 2003, the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic emerged and the European Union launched major research programs to try not to be caught off guard by an unforeseen epidemic. The approach was very simple: how to anticipate the behavior of a virus that we do not know? Well, simply by studying all of the known viruses, in order to understand what can be transposed to new viruses, and in particular how they replicate. This type of research is uncertain, its results cannot be planned, and it takes a lot of time, energy, patience.
This is patiently validated basic research, on long-term programs, which may eventually have therapeutic outlets. It is also independent: it is the best vaccine against a scandal like the Mediator one [This was a large-scale scandal in France in which the drug Mediator of the French pharmaceutical company Servier, which was introduced on a large scale without prior careful and independent investigation, after several years was found to cause serious heart complaints, involving approximately 2,000 deaths and more than 4,000 victims in the trial, (note by translators)].
In my team, we participated in European collaborative networks, which led us to find results from 2004. But, in viral research, in Europe as in France, the tendency is rather to strain ourselves during an epidemic event and then forget about it. By 2006, political interest in SARS-CoV had disappeared; no one knew if it was going to come back. Europe has withdrawn from these major anticipation projects in the name of taxpayer satisfaction. Now, when a virus emerges, researchers are asked to mobilize urgently and find a solution for the next day. With Belgian and Dutch colleagues, five years ago we sent two letters of intent to the European Commission saying that we have to be prepared. Between these two letters, Zika appeared…
Science does not work with urgency and as an immediate response.
With my team, we continued to work on coronaviruses, but with meager funding and under working conditions that we have gradually seen decline. When I complained, I was often said: “Yes, but you, the researchers, do something useful for society … And you are passionate about your work, isn’t that good too?”.
And I thought of all the files that I have evaluated.
I thought of all the papers I have reviewed for publication.
I thought of the annual report, the 2-year report, and the 4-year report.
I wondered if someone was reading my reports, and if that same person was also reading my publications.
I thought about the two maternity leaves and the two sick leaves in our team of 22 people for which there was no replacement.
I thought of the farewell drinks, for retirement or promotion elsewhere, and the lost positions as these colleagues had not been replaced.
I thought of the 11 years of temporary contracts of our researcher Sophia, who could not rent an apartment without a permanent contract, or take out a loan from the bank.
I thought of the courage of Pedro, who resigned from his researcher position at the CNRS to become an organic farmer.
I thought of the tens of thousands of euros that I had to put out of my pocket to register for very expensive international conferences.
I remembered eating an apple and a sandwich outside of the convention building while colleagues working for big pharmaceutical firms went to the banquet.
I thought of the Research Tax Credit [a tax exemption programme for firms that can deduct their R&D expenses (note of the translators], which went from 1.5 billion to 6 billion annually (twice the CNRS budget) under the Sarkozy presidency.
I thought of President Hollande, then of President Macron who knowingly continued this hold-up that makes me spend my time writing project proposals for the ANR [the French National Research Agency].
I thought of all my colleagues that were made to manage the shortage resulting from the hold-up. I thought of all the ANR project proposals I wrote, and which were not selected or funded.
I thought of this ANR Franco-German project, which had no negative reviews, but whose evaluation lasted so long that I was told to re-submit it a year later, and that I was finally turned down for lack of funds.
I thought of the ANR Flash call for projects on the coronavirus, which has just been published.
I thought I could stop writing ANR projects.
But then I thought about the people with precarious contracts working on these projects in our team.
I thought that because of all of this, I no longer had the time to do research as I wanted, which I had signed up for.
I thought we had temporarily lost the game.
I wondered if this was really useful for society, and if I was still passionate about this profession.
I have often wondered if I would change for an uninteresting job, harmful to society and for which I would be paid dearly?
No, actually, I didn’t.
I do hope by my voice that I have made heard the legitimate anger strongly present in academia and public research in general.
Translation: Yolande Jansen & Virginie Mamadouh