‘Darwinism’ applied to academic work or how French leaders are governing through contempt

Antoine Petit, CEO of the French National Centre for Scientific research (my employer…) recently scandalised the academic community by calling for a management of research that would be ever more ‘competitive’ (speech publicly available here). He claimed that what France needs is a ‘darwinian’ law that would give more money to those who are ‘the most performant at the international level’. The reference to the laws of natural selection raised the indignation of many colleagues (for example here, here or here). Petit even wrote an op’ed in Le Monde to defend himself (here, for subscribers only). But it is another aspect of why his statement is so problematic that I’d like to emphasise here. What does it mean to be ‘performant’ as a researcher?

This Academic Slow Food Manifesto comes from Allegra Lab one of my favourite academic pages. If you don’t know it yet, go check it out now!

I suspect that in his mouth being ‘performant’ basically means being ‘expensive’. The more you spend, the better you are, the more money you receive – on loop… He defended his twisted ideology as an ‘inegalitarian’ or ‘differentialist’ law. Arghhh, how can you be the CEO of a major knowledge production centre and just use these words without any kind of background knowledge? Ever heard of John Rawl’s ultra classical Theory of Justice that explains that if equity doesn’t mean equality, the ‘unequal treatment of inequality’ can only be legitimate when it favours those who are on the weak side? What about having a look at Justice and the Politics of Difference where Iris Marion Young demonstrates how ‘differentialism’ should be used, precisely to deconstruct the entrenched privileges of those who, as M. Petit, think that their own ideologies are nothing less than ‘natural laws’? …

I worked for a very well funded research project before being recruited at the CNRS. We had so much money that we could afford fancy hotels and plenty of plane tickets. We attended some of the most expensive conferences in our fields (that could be a topic for a future post…). But comfy rooms, Oedipian academia and catastrophic carbon prints do not produce ideas. My experience from working for a ‘darwinian’ project also came with a LOT of pressure to show off the results of our work even though the work was still in process. We all came very close from a burn-out. Two of us actually really had a very bad time either during or shortly after working on that grant. The money was not a saviour, it quickly became the main problem. I still want to think it is not automatic, other projects might run much more smoothly, even with a lot of zeros on the budget lines. But there is no direct link between big money and good research.

I do believe we did ‘excellent’ research at the end, and that did not came from where the extra money was spent. Basically, the research was good because we were a bunch of dedicated researchers (willing to spend 18 months away from their families to conduct fieldwork). We were paid decent salaries (twice the salary of a young CNRS recruit). We were given good equipment (a computer, two cameras, a printer … you know the kind of basic stuff we have to beg for at CNRS). We did ‘excellent’ research because we are ‘excellent’ researchers. And we definitely could have done so with less money if only we all had secured positions in a reasonably resourced institution that does not despise strong social science, i.e. a long-term commitment with people. The kind of academic commitment that made the quality of our research is built through time and consideration. It has nothing to do with a strategic alinement with grant-providers nor with some brainless loyalty towards the short-lived ideological lexicon of the time…


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