Nature 395, 829 (29 October 1998) | doi:10.1038/27502

French inquiry into misconduct is shelved

Declan Butler

The French government has quietly dropped plans to commission an international inquiry into allegations of misconduct at a laboratory of INSERM, the national biomedical research agency (see Nature 393, 203; 1998).

In May, Daniel Nahon, the director-general of the Ministry of National Education, Research and Technology announced that four international experts would be asked to carry out an inquiry into the activities of the INSERM Laboratory of Nutrition, Lipoprotein Metabolism and Atherosclerosis at the University of Rennes 1, and its director Bernard Bihain (see Nature 391, 519–520; 1998 & Nature 391, 825; 1998). He promised that the inquiry would be completed within three months and its conclusions made public.

The laboratory itself was closed by INSERM in August on the grounds that Bihain had asked to be discharged from his duties on "personal grounds". At the time, many scientists expressed concern that the closure might be used to justify a reduction in efforts to get to the bottom of the affair.

Their fears appear to have been realized. Naturehas learnt that the ministry has now abandoned the inquiry. "We stopped everything," admits Vincent Courtillot, principal adviser to Claude Allègre, the science minister. "The affair is over, the guy is in America, the lab does not exist, so we are not going to make an inquiry committee work on something where there are no consequences."

Jacques Lenfant, vice-chancellor of the University of Rennes I, says he is deeply disappointed by the government's action, and questions why it began an inquiry in the first place. The scientific board of INSERM has also repeated its demand that a scientific investigation of the laboratory be carried out and made public "in the interests of the agency and its staff".

For its part, the SNTRS-CGT, a trade union representing INSERM scientists, has called for "full light to be thrown on the presumptions of scientific fraud", arguing that "the honour of the scientific community is at stake".

In a thinly veiled allegation that the government has tried to hush-up the affair, it asserts that "only the decision-makers had to be worried about the outcome of a search for the truth".

Meanwhile, a separate inquiry into the activities of the laboratory by the police fraud squad in Rennes (see Nature 394, 308; 1998) has moved a step closer to becoming a formal judicial inquiry. The public prosecutor of the region has opened a preliminary investigation into the affair, following the submission of an 'information file' ('dossier de renseignement') by the fraud squad making the case for a judicial inquiry.

INSERM, which has been widely criticized over its handling of the Bihain affair, is to create an office of scientific integrity. Claude Griscelli, the agency's director-general, says the unit's remit will be to investigate "promptly and effectively" all allegations of misconduct, and to settle disputes, for example over the order of authorship on papers.

In a bid to prevent future misconduct, the unit will also make recommendations for good laboratory practice. These would include guidelines for clinical trials and standards for keeping laboratory note-books and other records.