French research chief: grants are up, bureaucracy is down

Thierry Damerval speaks to Nature about his first year at the helm of the French National Research Agency, the nation’s main competitive funder.

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Thierry Damerval

Thierry Damerval.Credit: Bertrand Guigou/ANR

When microbiologist Thierry Damerval took over as chief of the French National Research Agency (ANR) — the nation’s main competitive research-funding agency — just over a year ago, he faced a challenge.

The agency — which has a budget of €708.3 million (US$813 million) this year — had suffered a number of public upsets since 2016, and was troubled by widely reported discontent among staff and partner scientists.

Founded in 2005, the ANR awards grants for both blue-skies and applied research, and has funded some 15,000 projects. But some scientists said that the agency’s leadership had put too much emphasis on applied research. They also complained of excessive bureaucracy and poor management.

In 2017, Michael Matlosz resigned after three years in charge of the ANR. Five months later, the French government appointed Damerval — previously a senior manager at the national biomedical agency INSERM — as the ANR’s new head. Research minister Frédérique Vidal tasked him with giving the ANR “new impetus”.

A year on, Nature talks to Damerval about his achievements so far and his next priorities.

How have you dealt with upset at the ANR?

When I arrived at the agency, I did not find the staff were disgruntled. On the contrary, I found a highly competent and enthusiastic team determined to increase collaboration and interdisciplinarity.

What are your priorities for the agency?

Minister Vidal gave me two major goals when I took over: to raise the success rate for grant applications to 20%, and to simplify procedures.

My aim is to hit that selection rate as soon as possible. The success rate was less than 10% in 2014 and 2015, 13% in 2017 and 15% last year. The idea is to reach 20% without reducing the grant amount for each project, and this should be possible thanks to our bigger budget.

I also want to strengthen links between research and innovation, in partnership with other French funding agencies and ministries, and to develop how we evaluate completed projects to ensure that our overall funding is effective.

In 2018, we introduced a new ANR charter for ethics and integrity in research, and improved how we monitor our portfolio of funded projects. We have also improved our management systems for grant selection, and will now develop support services for scientists.

What is your policy on the divide between basic and applied research?

At a board meeting in 2017, before I was appointed, the minister decided to stop an unpopular way of funding research — responding to ‘societal challenges’. Instead, the agency now makes grant calls in seven scientific areas: the environment; energy and materials; digital technology; life sciences; social sciences and humanities; mathematics and physics — plus interdisciplinary research.

Two surveys show clearly that scientists welcome the new arrangements. These grants are on top of those awarded for specific applied-research projects. The approach in basic science is now bottom-up, or investigator-driven, whereas previously it was more top-down and less open. I prefer the term ‘investigator-driven’ to ‘blue skies’.

Our budget for research funding has risen from €673.5 million in 2018 to €708.3 million this year, most of it coming from research-ministry subsidies.

Projects in the seven scientific areas now account for 73% of funding, and specific applied-research projects for 27%.

How have you cut bureaucracy for grant applications?

The first step was to simplify the agency’s action plan. As well as introducing the seven scientific areas, we have taken several steps to simplify researchers’ lives.

Two years ago, the action plan, application forms and background documents for scientists applying for grants totalled 250 pages. Now they consist of three 30-page documents, and include information on the government’s research priorities, such as humanities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, antibiotic resistance, autism and orphan diseases.

The agency has also streamlined financial processes. Since last March, the ANR pays grant overheads in a lump sum rather than as reimbursed expenses with receipts. We continue to work on further simplification measures.

Senior scientists said previously that they were sidelined from important decisions. How have you remedied this?

For the past year, the heads of the ANR’s five scientific departments have been members of the agency’s executive committee, which makes decisions about management, internal organization and human resources.

Every week, we hold a meeting of the scientific steering committee, which comprises the scientific operations director and the head of each of the scientific departments, to discuss scientific questions, such as the progress of projects.

The heads of the 48 scientific evaluation committees for themed projects work closely, but in total independence. In addition, we met about 2,500 scientists during our third annual ‘ANR Tour’ around France, last September, to present the action plan and the latest calls for proposals, and we meet regularly with scientists throughout the year.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00157-2

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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