Wine, Cheese, and Academic Torpor

by Veronique de Rugy

Two weeks ago, the Paris-based Institut Montaigne released a report showing that the best French academics are increasingly moving to the U.S. This interesting study got a lot of attention not only in France but in the United States, too — here in the New York Times, for instance.

This morning, over at Room for Debate, I give my two cents on why these academics are leaving France. The short answer: lack of competition.

The reason for this is that French university professors are government employees. The Ministère de l’Enseignement Supérieur et de la Recherche sets salaries centrally. Based on the standardized wages and salaries paid by French universities, the best salary a full professor will make at the end of his career is about $86,000. Of course, he can add to his salary with bonuses received for administrative tasks, such as sitting on doctoral committees and rise in seniority.

But the sitting professor will not receive a bonus for publishing research. Once one passes the Agrégation — a civil-service exam given to those wishing to become a full professor — there is little incentive to publish. As a result, French academics publish less than their peers in other countries. France ranks sixth worldwide (after England, Japan, Germany and the United States) with 4.3 percent of publications in 2007, a decline from 5.4 percent in 1995. More important, if one looks at the share of citations in international journals from 2000-2009, France ranks 13th.

The secure, but static French system makes French academic departments less intellectually appealing, especially when compared with the United States, where competition exists at all levels of academic life.

There are other interesting pieces on the issue here.

Interestingly, a few of these emigre academics are returning to Europe, as Guy Sorman’s great article on this issue explains. For example, German monetary and financial institutions scholar Christian Hellwig has decided to leave UCLA. However, he isn’t going back to Germany but to the University of Toulouse in the south of France. Why? Because the famous economist Jean Tirolle, who spent most of this academic carrier at MIT, has returned to France and, drawing on his American experience, is creating a center of excellence in Toulouse.

Tirole’s cultivation of financial support from local companies has enabled the public university to make an offer that competes with Hellwig’s wages at UCLA. Bonn and Mannheim Universities in Germany, Bocconi in Milan, and Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona are other rising European centers in economic research, and the Paris School of Economics could soon follow.