Research in France

Research policy in France is led by the Ministry for Higher Education and Research (Ministère de l’Enseignement Supérieur et de la Recherche – MESR). MESR designs, develops and implements the national policy for research and innovation. It defines the major research axes and distributes resources based on general objectives. It implements, together with the relevant partners, reliable evaluation procedures in order to measure the performance and effectiveness of national schemes for research and innovation. It oversees research organisations and institutions of higher education.

The national strategy for research and innovation is implemented by MESR in conjunction with the State Secretary for Industry (Direction Générale de la Compétitivité de l’Industrie et des Services – DGCIS). This requires a process of development and consensus-building that draws upon the cross perspectives of different stakeholders from the world of academia, economics, and non-profit, and with the participation of all relevant ministries.

Research is conducted either in higher learning institutions or in research organisations (public research), or in firms (private research). In all, approximately 400,000 people are employed in research, including 230,000 researchers and university lecturer-researchers.


Credit : CEA / P. Stroppa

Domestic R&D spending in France

In 2012, total domestic spending on research and development was €43.6 billion. France dedicated 2.26% of GDP to public and private research, a slight increase from the past ten years (2.15% in 2000). R&D spending in France is less than in Germany (2.82% in 2010), but higher than Great Britain (1.77% in 2010).

In Europe, only the Scandinavian countries exceed the 3% set out in the Lisbon Strategy in 2000, with 3.87% in Finland, 3.42% in Sweden and 3.06% in Denmark. The average for the Euro zone countries came in at 2.06% in 2010 (compared to 1.96% in 2008), which was somewhat less than spending in Japan (3.45% in 2008) and the United States (2.79% in 2008).

The bulk of R&D spending is done by firms. For 2008, the proportion in France was 0.78% of GDP for public research compared to 1.32% for private research. These figures, respectively, in other countries were as follows: 0.79% to 1.85% in Germany, 0.67% to 1.10% in Great Britain, 0.76% to 2.01% in the United States, and 0.74% to 2.69% in Japan.

Public research

Public research in France is conducted predominantly by a group of approximately thirty research bodies. Some are multi-disciplinary, such as the French National Centre for Scientific Research (Centre national de la Recherche Scientifique – CNRS). Others conduct targeted research, such as French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale – Inserm), the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique – INRA), INRIA (French national institute for research in computer science and control), French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique et aux énergies alternatives – CEA), the French national centre for space studies (Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales – CNES), the French Research Institute for the Exploration of the Sea (Institut Français de Recherche pour l’Exploitation de la Mer – Ifremer), etc. Also included are foundations, such as the Curie Institute (Institut Curie), or non-profit private foundations, such as the Pasteur Institute (Institut Pasteur).

A large proportion of public research is also carried out by higher education institutions: 83 universities; 26 centres for research and higher education (Pôles de Recherche et d’Enseignement Supérieur – PRES); 24 elite schools (grandes écoles), including 4 Écoles Normales Supérieures and 3 Écoles Centrales; 18 research and higher education institutions (grands établissements), including 2 astronomical centres (observatories); 8 political science institutes (Instituts d’Etudes Politiques); 5 national institutes for applied sciences (Institut National des Sciences Appliquées – INSA); 3 national polytechnic institutes (Instituts Nationaux Polytechniques – INP); 2 European network universities (pôles universitaires européens), totalling 3,000 research teams or laboratories (Institutions for higher education in France).

Several organisations can collaborate under the form of a mixed research unit (Unité Mixtes de Recherche – UMR), such as the case of the majority of the laboratories of CNRS, or federated research institutes (Instituts Fédératifs de Recherche – IFR), as is the case of Inserm.

Learning through research takes place within 290 universities offering doctoral programmes. Their objective is to train, through the preparation of a doctoral thesis over three years, very high level specialists and researchers. At the beginning of the 2010 academic year, 65,800 students were enrolled in doctorate programmes and 11,800 doctorates were conferred during 2009.

Private Research

Private research is conducted by firms, employing 226,000 people, including 133,500 researchers in 2009. Domestic spending on research and development by firms (Dépense Intérieure de Recherche et Développement des Entreprises – DIRDE) was €26.3 billion in 2009.

For firms, close to half (45%) of all researchers are concentrated in 6 areas of research: the automobile industry, computer science and information, aviation and space, pharmaceutical industry, manufacture of measurement instruments and devices.


Credits : Sanofi Aventis / D. Felix

Who funds research?

Public research laboratories are partially funded by universities, public research bodies, and financing agencies, including the French National Research Agency (Agence Nationale de la Recherche – ANR). Laboratories also receive funds from French regional governments, charitable associations, industry associations, and the European Union.

L’Agence Nationale pour la Recherche et le financement sur projets

Created in 2005, the French National Research Agency funds research projects selected through international excellence criteria. The Agency operates primarily through calls for proposals in line with national priorities and impacts all the major areas of research and innovation.

Funding via projects enables support for the most ambitious projects and the best-performing research teams. Projects are funded for an average period of 3 to 4 years. The average amount awarded per project has noticeably increased over the years, from €383,000 in 2006, to €425,000 in 2007, €483,000 in 2008 and €487,000 in 2009.

ANR’s objectives are to:

  • encourage the emergence of new concepts (‘white’ programmes, whose content is determined by the scientific community);
  • increase the proportion of research in areas of economic or societal priorities (call for themed-based projects);
  • intensify collaboration between public and private research (call for partnership projects);
  • develop international partnerships (transnational call for projects).

The ANR has funded 7,000 projects, bringing together more than 22,000 public and private research teams between 2005-2009, for a total spending of €3 billion.

During 2009, ANR’s call for projects, including both themed and non-themed projects, as well as open or partnership projects, led to the funding of more than €650 millions in research. The research teams of the main research bodies received close to 54% of these funds, slightly more than the 24% awarded to higher education institutions and the grandes écoles, and a little over 12% for private research. Half of all funding was devoted to non-themed programmes since 2010.



In terms of private research, the French government supports programmes for innovation implemented by small and medium size enterprises through the state-owned firm OSEO and the research tax credit. The attractiveness of France at the international level and the support received by foreign firms contribute to the funding of private research.

OSEO has three tasks, mainly the :

  • support of innovation,
  • guarantee of bank financing,
  • financing of investments.


Who evaluates research?

The French Evaluation Agency for Research and Higher Education (Agence d’Evaluation de la Recherche et de l’Enseignement Supérieur – AERES), created in 2007, conducts evaluations as an independent administrative authority following international standards. Its objective is to instruct decision-making and improve the overall performance of the system by providing researchers, relevant ministries and financing agencies with high-quality, transparent and objective information.

Visibility of French research: the ranking problem

The Academic Ranking of World Universities of Shanghai Jiao Tong University (commonly known as the Shanghai ranking) ranks the major universities around the world, and has become a benchmark despite its simplicity and subjectivity. The institutions are ranked according to six criteria, such as the number of publications in the scientific journals Nature and Science, the number of Nobel prizes or Fields medals awarded to researchers or educational team. The ranking’s creators themselves underline some of its limitations, namely a bias favouring English-speaking countries and large institutions, as well as the difficulty of defining adequate indicators to rank universities specialised in the social sciences. And paradoxically for a ranking of universities, it does not include criteria evaluating the quality of teaching, nor the competence of students.

The highly developed and complex organisation of research in France, which has evolved over several centuries, is especially penalised in the Shanghai ranking due to other factors:

– University budgets can vary by several orders of magnitude, as a result of a more or less centralised system of higher education. As such, Harvard, with a $35 billion endowment, is 100 times richer than Paris-VI Jussieu. Size is also highly variable; for example, the Paris metropolitan area has 17 universities and a large number of grandes écoles with a small number of students. These institutions are counted separately while English-speaking universities gather together multiple departments for the ranking.

– Research in France is generally carried out in mixed research units that bring together universities and research bodies, such as CNRS; in this example, the Shanghai ranking attributes half of the benefit to the university and half to CNRS. Since CNRS and other French research bodies do not appear in the Shanghai ranking, half the benefit is lost and does not appear at all in the ranking.

France is therefore clearly penalised in this ranking, even as it is one of the world leaders in the quality and level of research.

A key figure illustrating the quality of French research

Of all the Nobel prizes in the sciences, France ranks fourth in the world, with 34 prizes, behind the United States (228), Great-Britain (77) and Germany (58). France has received 13 Nobel prizes in physiology and medicine, the same number in Physics, including the most recent, awarded to Serge Haroche in 2012, and 8 Nobel prizes in Chemistry.

France can be proud of coming in at a gratifying 2nd place in the number of Fields medals (officially known as International Medal for Outstanding Discoveries in Mathematics) awarded since 1936. With 11 medals, France follows closely behind the United States (12) and beats Russia (9).

A tally including other awards – such as the Abel Prize for mathematics, the Vetlesen Prize for earth sciences, and major international prizes in an array of disciplines, including the Crafoord, Wolf, Shaw and Kyoto – again puts France in fourth place, behind the same three countries of the United States, Great Britain and Germany. Taking into account all prizes, France still ranks 2nd as the nation with the most awards in mathematics.