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Embattled French health-agency chief withdraws leadership bid

French health minister Agnès Buzyn and her husband Yves Lévy, who has withdrawn his bid to lead INSERM for a second term.Credit: Ludovic Marin/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The chief of France’s national biomedical-research agency INSERM has said that he will not run for a second term, a decision that ends months of uncertainty about his future at the organization. Yves Lévy’s leadership of INSERM had become controversial after his wife Agnès Buzyn was appointed as the country’s health minister last year — but his decision comes despite the fact that procedures were put in place to mitigate a possible conflict of interest.

INSERM announced the news on 30 July, confirming publicly for the first time that Lévy had applied for a second four-year term as the agency’s chief. In an internal letter to agency staff sent on the same day and seen by Nature, Lévy said he was withdrawing his application because his “personal situation” would render him unable to implement his ambitious plans for the agency. In a public statement that followed the revelation, the prime minister’s office said that all procedures to avoid a conflict of interest between INSERM and the health minister had been implemented continuously since Buzyn was appointed by President Emmanuel Macron in May 2017.

Lévy has led INSERM, which is one of Europe’s leading health-research agencies, with a budget of €908 million (US$1.1 billion) for 2018, since 2014. When Buzyn was appointed, critics immediately said that the relationship could create a conflict of interest, because the health and research ministries generally have joint governmental responsibility for INSERM. The government quickly moved to address the potential conflict, putting in place, at Buzyn’s request, a decree within two weeks that gave the French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe responsibility for the health ministry’s role in INSERM.

But amid speculation that Lévy would run for a second term, critics continued to voice concerns about the situation, and the predicament was covered widely in the French press. Buzyn has made several statements to the French press stating that she has had no involvement with INSERM or in the selection process for its next chief, which began April. Her office reaffirmed this in response to Nature’s request for comment. Levy did not respond to Nature’s requests for further comment on the situation.

Future plans

There had been much speculation over whether Lévy, a clinical immunologist, would run for a second term. According to Maude Le Gall of the leading French research union SNCS-FSU, he told unions in a meeting on 30 July that he had submitted an action plan for a second term to the government last November. “Mr Lévy also told us he did not want suspicions of conflict of interest to undermine the agency’s chances,” says Le Gall, who represents INSERM staff on its management board. She adds that the reduced contact with the health ministry — a result of the measures put in place to prevent a potential conflict — had not been good for agency researchers.

Lévy has been acting as interim director of INSERM since 12 June, when his four-year term ended, and he will continue in this role until a new leader is appointed. In its statement, the prime minister’s office said that the recruitment process would be resumed in the next few weeks. Several candidates had applied in the initial call for applications, although their names were not officially released by the agency, in accordance with the rules of the process. But rather than continuing with the remaining applicants, a fresh call for applications will be made at the beginning of September, an official in the prime minister’s office said.

The official, who asked not to be named, said that this was because speculation about Lévy’s application had probably deterred a number of potential candidates from coming forward, and that opening a new round would widen the pool. “Now that Mr Lévy has pulled out, the government hopes it will have more candidates to choose from,” the official said. “But this does not preclude the initial ones from re-applying.” Applicants are judged by an independent panel.



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