Foreign experts to assess INSERM

French investigators outraged as English and German scientists help to evaluate projects

Jun 3, 2005
Jane Burgermeister(

British and German scientists are to be included for the first time ever on a key scientific board of INSERM—France's Institute of Health and Medical Research—next month. The break with tradition has ruffled the feathers of some researchers who feel the move has been thrust upon them.

Eight experts from the United Kingdom and Germany will be sitting alongside 30 French scientists when INSERM's scientific board meets on June 21 to select projects to be funded for the next 4 years. In another radical break with established practice, English will be the language of some of the sessions, although a translator will be available.

Stephanie Lux, INSERM director of communications, said that including scientists from the United Kingdom and Germany in the evaluation process was designed to increase transparency and boost the quality of scientific research.

Four of the scientists will come from the United Kingdom's Medical Research Council and four from medical research institutes belonging to the German Research Foundation (DFG), but INSERM declined to name the invited experts.

International investigators already participate in the first phase of INSERM's evaluation process by joining on-site inspections of laboratories, Lux said. "Until now, we have asked foreign scientists to give their advice on particular projects to reinforce French expertise," she said. "INSERM units will continue to be evaluated according to the internal system and in the French language. This change applies only to the evaluation of the bigger units, the research centers."

Unions representing French researchers have protested against the decision. "The constitution of INSERM only allows non-French experts to give their opinion in a written form to the scientific board and not to take part in internal debates," INSERM investigator Jean Kister told The Scientist.

Though Kister welcomed the support of foreign colleagues in the evaluation process, he criticized the management of INSERM for imposing the experts on the organization by a "coup de force." Furthermore, he expressed fears that French scientists would be a disadvantage in debates held in English.

"It is to be feared that the foreign scientists chosen are those whose ideas conform with that of the management, and that they will also have influence on administrative and organizational decisions and will help decide who will work for INSERM or not," he added.

Lux, however, rejected the idea that the UK and German scientists on the board would have a say on INSERM's administrative or organizational affairs. "They will be there strictly to evaluate the scientific quality of projects," she said.

Eva-Maria Streier, spokeswoman of the DFG, had strong praise for the change at INSERM. She told The Scientist that a breadth of international scientific expertise would bring an invaluable perspective on the evaluation of projects.

Streier said that the DFG routinely asked scientists from outside of Germany to help evaluate its big projects and noted that English was the working language of most evaluation committees and also of proposals.

"We have included scientists from abroad for a long time with great success and we will carry on working closely with them in the future even more," Streier told The Scientist. "This is the trend and reflects the increasing internalization of science."

INSERM employs 13,000 staff, including 6000 researchers, and is under the guidance of the Ministries of Health and Research. Its latest decision comes at a time of radical reform for France's scientific institutions, including the creation of a National Research Agency, which has triggered repeated protests from scientists.