French researchers hope new chief will revitalize troubled funding agency

Microbiologist Thierry Damerval appointed head of France’s National Research Agency.

Thierry Damerval, the newly appointed chief of the French National Research Agency.Credit: Inserm/Patrice Latron

French scientists are hopeful that the newly appointed chief of a major research-funding agency will revive an organization suffering from squeezed budgets and staff discontent.

Microbiologist Thierry Damerval was appointed as president and chief executive of the French National Research Agency (ANR) on 8 December. His hiring comes five months after his predecessor, Michael Matlosz, resigned after a year of widely reported discontent over how the agency was being managed. The ANR, France’s main competitive funding agency, was created in 2005 to hand out grants for basic- and applied-research projects conducted by agencies, universities and businesses.

Matlosz, a former chemical engineer, became chief of the ANR in 2014. But since 2016, the agency has suffered a number of public upsets.

Scientists have complained about excessive bureaucracy and paperwork, some of which, they say, stemmed from a government push to turn the agency’s focus to nine ‘societal challenges’. Some staff also criticized poor internal communications and said that the ANR’s leading researchers were being sidelined from important decisions. Two senior staff members were fired — one in 2016 and another this year.

In July this year, Matlosz resigned. France’s minister for higher education, research and innovation Frédérique Vidal, says it was because the agency needed “a new impetus” following organizational changes.

“Scientists have high hopes that the ANR will be more transparent and better managed,” says Patrick Monfort, secretary-general of the country’s National Trade Union of Scientific Researchers.

Damerval has spent the past ten years at the French biomedical research agency, INSERM, first as deputy director-general for strategy, then, since 2011, as deputy director-general of the agency as a whole. His experience at INSERM means he should be aware of researchers’ needs and of the issues at the ANR, says Patrick Lemaire, a biologist at the University of Montpellier and founder of the researcher-led campaign group Sciences en Marche.

Damerval “is extremely conscientious, and respectful of researchers’ work”, says Bernard Meunier, a chemist and past president of the French Academy of Sciences who has known Damerval for more than a decade. “He will need to be bold in re-organizing the agency, and should make his priority a focus on blue-skies research instead of societal challenges,” says Meunier.

Damerval’s main priority may be solving the ANR’s budget woes. Although the agency received an 8% increase in its budget this year, to €643 million (US$754 million), that was still lower than its allotment five years ago. A cash injection might be on the horizon — the latest draft government budget for 2018 gives the ANR a 21% boost to €773 million — but that has not yet been voted into law.

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