French researchers oppose biomedical reform plan

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Claude Allègre, the French minister for national education, research and technology, has put forward proposals for the reform of the national biomedical research agency, Inserm, aimed at streamlining its administration and increasing its capacity for strategic planning.

But the moves are being viewed with concern by some Inserm researchers, who feel that they would lead to a reduction of their influence over research strategy. More than 200 laboratory heads and other researchers have signed a petition protesting against the proposals for reform of the agency.

One of the main reforms being proposed by Allègre is that there should be a strengthening of the role of the agency's administrative council in making strategic decisions on research directions that have in the past been agreed jointly by the scientific community and Inserm management.

Some scientists have interpreted this as an attempt by the ministry to seek greater control over the agency, and are concerned that the relative lack of scientific experience among members of the new board might lead to a lack of adequate focus in research goals.

Evidence of an apparent desire for greater centralization also comes from plans by the ministry to take direct control of more than half of the funds for laboratory equipment and supplies, which were previously overseen by scientific committees.

At the same time, the ministry proposes to reduce the number of scientists appointed to the agency's elected bodies for evaluating research, while the scientific board will lose its powers for setting research strategies and choosing recruits. Both are being seen as weakening the influence of researchers over broad research strategy.

The fourth major reform outlined is the division of Inserm into scientific departments —similar to the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS)—each of which will be headed by an official appointed by the ministry. The move has surprised scientists as Inserm, with 2,115 scientists and 2,755 technicians, is relatively small compared with CNRS, which has more than 26,000 staff; indeed the whole of Inserm is smaller than the CNRS's life sciences department.

The petition expresses the concern that the moves seem aimed at converting Inserm from an independent research agency with control over its own research activities to a research council distributing funds to university groups and hospitals on the basis of policies defined by the ministry.

The scientists who signed the petition claim that the ministry has failed to consult either Inserm's scientific boards or its trade unions over the planned reforms, describing this as a “dirigiste, centralist, and technocratic” attitude.

This accusation is refuted by the ministry, which claims that Inserm representatives were fully consulted. But Nicolette Farman, from the National Union of Scientific Researchers, says that, while the trade unions were asked for their opinions of the proposed changes, they were excluded from the preparations of the reforms themselves.

In a thinly-veiled attack on the biomedical research agency, the ministry said in a statement that, while its scientific development over the past few years had been globally “positive”, it lagged behind in fields such as “instruments, the development of drugs, physiology, clinical trails and medical information”, justifying the proposals for reform.

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