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It is well-known that Grothendieck's "esquisse d'un programme" was submitted in 1984 as part as the author's application for a permanent position of "Directeur de Recherche" at the C.N.R.S. (the main public research institute in France, which employs thousands of full-time researchers.) This came after Grothendieck had resigned from his professorship at I.H.E.S. and spent a few years as a professor at the university of Montpellier. All of this is for instance written in Esquisse d'un programme itself, or in Recoltes et Semailles.

What I don't know for sure is: what happened to his application to the C.N.R.S. ? Did he get a permanent position? Another kind of position? Nothing? If he got some offer, did he accept it or refused it? If he accepted an offer, did he effectively hold it , and when, how and why did he eventually quit it (I assume he did, because before long he disappeared almost completely.)

Now, wikipedia (in the Esquisse d'un programme page) says something about it, namely that the application was successful and the position held from 84 to 88. It refers to an article in science news, which doesn't say more if my memories don't fail me. However, I had asked this to question various people in France receiving as many different answers as persons I asked. So I would like confirmation of this point by knowledgeable people (either by direct witnesses, or by someone having evidences). Moreover, this wikipedia sentence just answers part of the question: it doesn't tell what kind of position Grothendieck got, if he effectively held it, and why and how he quitted.

On the other hand, this is a public event of which all or most participants are still alive, so it should be relatively easy to get a knowledgeable answer. I apologize that my question has absolutely no mathematical content, but there is a long sequence of well-accepted precedent questions about some aspects of the life of famous mathematicians and also about mathematical institutions.

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up vote 28 down vote accepted

I would think this is from an authoritative source, since apparently the author consulted with Bourguignon (chair of the hiring committee at CNRS).

When Grothendieck reapplied to the CNRS in 1984, his application was once again controversial. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, now director of the IHÉS, chaired the committee in charge of reviewing applications in mathematics, among which was Grothendieck’s. According to Bourguignon, in the handwritten letter required for the application, Grothendieck listed several tasks he would not perform, such as supervising research students. Because CNRS contracts obligate researchers to perform some of these tasks, this letter was viewed by the CNRS administration as proof of Grothendieck’s ineligibility. Bourguignon said he tried to get Grothendieck to amend his application so that it did not state explicitly all the tasks he refused to carry out, but Grothendieck would not budge. After considerable effort on the part of several people, Grothendieck was eventually put on a special kind of position, called a position asterisquée, that was acceptable to him and to the CNRS. The CNRS did not actually hire him but was in charge only of paying his salary, and he retained his university affiliation. So for his last few years at Montpellier before his retirement in 1988, Grothendieck did not teach and spent less and less time at the university.

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Thanks, that's exactly what I wanted. So I think that the wikipedia page should be modified, because an unqualified "successful application" is not what happened. – Joël Dec 5 '13 at 15:33
That there be something called «une position astérisquée» is more quintessentially French than a jambon-beurre! – Mariano Suárez-Alvarez Dec 6 '13 at 2:20
There is a considerable hypocrisy from the CNRS in this story, because there are not a few permanent members of the CNRS who never took a PhD student, and certainly if you count the number of CNRS members who don't have a student during the last four years before retirement, the proportion will be high. Moreover Grothendieck had had around two dozens of students during his career before applying to CNRS, so the committee could have considered that he had done enough on this respect. – Joël Dec 6 '13 at 15:50
I have modified the wikipedia web page, adding the sentence " The proposal was not successful, but Grothendieck obtained a special position where, while keeping his affiliation at the university of Montpellier, he was paid by the CNRS and released of his teaching obligations. Grothendieck held this position from 1984 till 1988" and the reference to the source given by Carlo. – Joël Dec 6 '13 at 16:06
@Joël I realize this is old but it got bumped so I noticed. I cannot follow accussation of hypocrisy there. It is one thing to never have done something by circumstance and a completely different one to state one will never do something out of principle. By contrast I find the behavior of Grothendieck there quite odd, creating issue and complications for others trying to accomodate his needs, for no actual purpose whatsoever (as in practice he would not have been forced to take the students). – user9072 Oct 28 '14 at 12:19

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