French life-science alliance unveiled

Coordinated approach aims to derive national strategies.

In a significant step towards the creation of a single life-sciences research council, the French government has forged an overarching alliance between the country's major agencies working in the field.

The National Alliance for Life and Health Sciences comprises eight bodies, including France's basic-research agency (CNRS), the national biomedical agency (INSERM) and the Pasteur Institute, based in Paris. Unveiled on 8 April, it will develop and coordinate national strategies in the life sciences and rationalize overlap between its members.

Although the structure of the agencies themselves will not change, the alliance will coordinate the planning for a research strategy on ten themes across all agencies.

In November 2008, an international panel of experts, including Elias Zerhouni and Harold Varmus, former directors of the US National Institutes of Health, and Leszek Borysiewicz, head of the UK Medical Research Council, reviewed French life-science research and concluded that the field needs a drastic shake-up.

Their report criticized the complexity and fragmentation of life sciences in France, and the proliferation of duplicated programmes and regional clusters of research. It recommended that a single research council be set up for the field, charged with funding labs in universities and research agencies.

The alliance is a key step towards that goal, says Pierre Chambon, a member of the review panel and the founder and honorary director of the Institute of Genetics and Molecular and Cellular Biology near Strasbourg, France. He argues that a biology agency would give the field a stronger voice, and that the life sciences should be taken out of the CNRS, where it has long played second fiddle to the physical sciences. Internal government working documents have also called for the alliance to be the embryo of a life-sciences agency.

But Alain Trautmann, a cell biologist at the Cochin Institute in Paris and former spokesman for the lobby group Let's Save Research, bemoans the alliance as evidence of a dismantling of the CNRS, calling it "the latest avatar created by our apparatchiks".

The alliance's steering group, composed of the heads of each member agency, will meet monthly to develop the strategy for their partnership.

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Butler, D. French life-science alliance unveiled. Nature 458, 957 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/458957a

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