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Cycling for science

Patrick Lemaire

Biologist Patrick Lemaire, who initiated the Sciences en Marche cycling protest that culminated last month with 8,000 demonstrators in Paris, talks to Safya Khan-Ruf.

How did Sciences en Marche begin and grow so fast?
It started in early June, at a meeting held to explore what scientists could do to improve scientific careers and public funding for laboratories and universities. During the meeting, I very spontaneously said: “Well why don’t we organise a march to Paris?” We set up local committees, initially in about 10 cities, which are now active in nearly 30 cities throughout France. That was actually very nice: the self-organisation was strong. And it worked very well.

What was the agenda?
We had three initial demands: a tenure track programme for public employment in science and higher education, a better position for PhDs in society and decent core funding for laboratories, and the use of funding from industry R&D tax incentives for public research and higher education. We chose these three demands because we knew there was consensus across the various disciplines.

What was the plan for the cycling?
We drew several converging cycling routes from the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and eastern France, and asked people to cycle as much as they could. Some people did the whole way but most did one, two or three stages and then went back to their labs. The idea to use bicycles was initially seen as very odd, but people got into it and it encouraged many young people to participate.

Was it stressful?
Well, the cycling was fine but it was difficult to keep track of, and keep organising, the movement at night after the cycling had finished. We were very afraid of having a major road accident—that was very stressful but nothing of the sort happened.

Why was there so much interaction with the public during the march?
Part of the reason for the poor support for science and higher education in France is that the public doesn’t really know about these areas. In the UK, there are very strong movements for the public understanding of science. But not in France. We wanted to go to people and explain what science is about. Ultimately, our target was the government, but educating and winning support from the public and the media for our cause was the means to get the attention of the government.

What activities did you organise?
We had conferences, animations, scientific demonstrations and experiments—extracting DNA from a banana was very popular. We were a bit afraid, initially, that people would just look at us and say: “Oh, these scientists, they are taking time to cycle through France and have nothing else to do.” But we were never confronted with that. People realised they knew very little about the life of a scientist, and we wanted to explain how we get funding and what the main issues are. The fact that more than 10 per cent of PhD holders in France are unemployed 3 years after completing their PhD came as a shock to people.

Are more protests needed across Europe?
Protests are not an aim per se, and they need to be combined with intense political lobbying. The real aim is to convince the political powers that science needs to be supported in a proper way. And not just short-term applied research, but also long-term basic science that contributes to transforming our societies. Take the internet, lasers and medical imaging—all these things were not invented to suit the needs of society; they were just basic research that was reused in a clever way.

Do you think the march was a success?
The government’s response has been that it is not going to change the level of tax incentives, so we are not going to stop. We were not necessarily expecting the government to yield immediately, so the first big success of the action is that science and higher education are back in the political limelight in France. Traditionally, science is not discussed in the presidential elections or any elections. But over the past 4 weeks, it has become a much greater political theme. The second success is that scientists have been reunited. Over the past 10 years, willingly or not, successive governments have created a large split between different scientific fields. This movement has reunited scientists in pursuit of one goal.

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Patrick Lemaire

  • 2011-present Principal investigator, Centre de Recherche de Biochimie Macromoléculaire, Montpellier
  • 1997-present Research director, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique
  • 1994-2010 PI, Institut de Biologie du Développement de Marseille
  • 1991-1994 Postdoctoral experience, University of Cambridge
  • 1989-present Staff scientist, CNRS
  • 1985-1990 PhD, EMBL, Germany, and École Normale Supérieure, Paris

This article also appeared in Research Europe