Research in France under General de Gaulle : a key factor in the nation's power and independence

De Gaulle made research a task for government. Under the heading of scientific and technical research (RST), he set up an interministerial structure covering every area of science and technology, including human sciences. In doing so, he dealt with a problem left unsolved by the Fourth Republic and signalled clearly that research had become a key factor in the nation's power and independence, through its growing contribution to national production, the economy and defence. Co-ordination combined with the highest levels of expertise was called for, since research was becoming a key area for a growing number of ministries. Even today, de Gaulle's achievement is still visible in the many organisations he created; the resources he made available radically altered the status of research in both business and government. 

1944-1946. Immediately after the Liberation, Charles de Gaulle set up the French atomic energy authority, the Commissariat à l'Energie Atomique or CEA. A decree of 29 January 1945 established the national scientific research centre (CNRS) with responsibility for the co-ordination and forward planning of research. 

1958-1966. During the twelve years of the Fourth Republic, a number of conferences were held, attended by various researchers, university professors, engineers and leaders of industry, to consider hopes and plans for modernisation. De Gaulle studied their findings. The decree of 28 November 1958 which he subsequently issued was detailed yet brief. He set up an inter-ministerial research committee (CIRST) chaired by the Prime Minister. He then backed this up with a consultative committee (CCRST) of twelve scientists chosen for their expertise. The CCRST drew up the overall budget for all French research, based on the applications submitted by research organisations. It discussed research projects with the office of national planning and submitted the research budget to the CIRST at its two annual sessions. A research delegation (DGRST) prepared submissions to the CCRST which in principle met on a weekly basis.

The wording of the decree, which is remarkable for its brevity, suggests that it was closely supervised by de Gaulle himself. Georges Pompidou, private secretary to de Gaulle during his period as President of the Council of Ministers, had misgivings about the workings of the CCRST, a high-level consultative body recruited from outside politics and the administration. By creating a post of advisor on RST, Education and Health within the Elysée Palace, however, de Gaulle clearly demonstrated the interest he took (as he was entitled to do by the Constitution) in sectors outside the reserved area of his powers. He kept up to date on research projects and allowed the CCRST science council wide-ranging powers of proposal.

The research budget was regularly increased. The CNRS budget doubled in three years. Space research took its first steps and the national space research agency (CNES) was set up with mission administration status, along the lines of the American research "agencies". The national agronomic research institute (INRA) and the national health and medical research institute (INSERM) underwent rapid expansion. INSERM, despite the initial reservations of its Minister, received funds for the development of molecular biology and to set up research units in hospitals. "Gentlemen," the General confided to the scientists on the Committee of Twelve, "you would expect a General to be especially interested in high-profile projects such as the conquest of space and of the depths of the oceans (…). In my heart of hearts, however, I wonder if this mysterious molecular biology, of which I understand absolutely nothing, does not offer the greatest opportunities for development".

Ocean research led to the setting up of the national centre for exploitation of the oceans (CNEXO). A special report on the reorganisation of army technical services prompted de Gaulle to set up the directorate of research and test methods (DRME), now known as the DRET (research, study and technical directorate). The directorate initiated the practice of granting research contracts to civilian firms. 

The DGRST used its status as a delegation and its allocated funding  to institute "Concerted Research Actions", involving subsidies for co-operation agreements between public sector and private.

1966-1969. The Fifth Plan, while maintaining the massive investments of its predecessor, marked a shift towards industrial and technical research. The production of nuclear power was handed over to EDF. A development aid fund was set up and the number of technical Concerted Research Actions increased.  Aid to the computer sector posed certain problems, in that it risked compromising the freedom of action of a private company which might consider its interests better served by co-operation with firms abroad.  In 1967 the IRIA was created for the benefit of the computor and automation industries and thus had a limited contribution to the "Plan calcul". As a rule, the Prime Minister delegated his powers to the Minister responsible for research. This undermined the effectiveness of CIRST assessments, which gradually gave way to negotiations between the departments dependent on the research budget. This budget achieved its maximum annual growth rate in 1965. It is common for a process of modernisation to come to an end after achieving part of its goals. Without the effort made under de Gaulle, France could not have made her mark in economic competition.