The most recent report assessing the state of scientific research in France in 2019 revealed a nation that is still a “great European scientific power” but whose global importance diminishes as research output grows globally.

The report outlines some of France’s notable achievements – its leadership in mathematics – but also its weaknesses, including a lack of funding for artificial intelligence and its poor ranking for the impact of its chemistry research.

The first such report was published in November 2007 by the French Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation. In its 14th edition, the report has grown considerably in size and offers an analytical and statistical overview of the country’s research base.

Analysis of the country’s research and innovation focuses on a number of aspects essential to scientific activity, although not all areas of research, such as chemistry, are well represented. France performed reasonably well in academic publishing, with 90,439 publications in 2019. This put France in eighth place behind Italy. China ranks first with 527,609 publications. However, France’s 0.97 influencing factor in 2017 is just below the 1.03 in China in the same year. If only the chemistry is taken into account, the normalized influencing factor of the field in France is 0.91 and is exceeded by that in Germany with 1.02 and in Great Britain with 1.23. France’s global share of scientific publications was 2.6% in 2019, down from 3.8% a decade ago, driven by growth in research in other parts of the world.

France achieved notable success in the EU’s Horizon 2020 science program in 2020, receiving just over 10.4% of the grants. Over the same period, Germany received 13.6% of these grants and the United Kingdom 7.1%. The UK’s participation in Horizon 2020 was in free fall due to the vote to leave the EU, having topped the table with 15.7% of grants in 2016.

The French government’s research spending amounted to 0.76% of GDP in 2018, compared to 0.56% in the UK and 0.89% in Korea. Industrial R&D expenditure was 1.44% of GDP in France, 1.17% in the UK, 4.36% in Israel and 3.64% in South Korea. The same numbers for China are closer to the European average: government spending is 0.48% of GDP and 1.66% for industry. The combined French spending on research and development in 2018 was EUR 51.8 billion (£ 44.6 billion). Just over 630,000 people or 10.3% of the population work in R&D positions, well above the EU average of 8.5%.

Chemist Michel Mortier, director general of the CNRS foundation, claims that chemistry seems to be a bit underreported here. “Some specific research areas such as new materials, new technologies and pharmaceuticals appear in the report while other important research areas in chemistry are missing,” he notes. On the question of whether artificial intelligence, a research area where China leads the world but France ranks 12th that could influence neural network approaches applied to chemistry, Mortier agrees to a point. ‘Neural networks are not a universal tool in chemical research. However, chemistry is more likely to come into contact with physics. Chemistry has long been an experimental thing, now we’re more focused on understanding and modeling. ‘Financing worries him more. “We see that over the past 10 years, companies have made efforts that are superior to the growth of GNP, while public research efforts have lagged, especially on startups and inventions.”

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