Scientists oppose INSERM changes

French researchers appeal against plans to include overseas scientists on scientific council

Jun 16, 2005
Jane Burgermeister(

French scientists are today (June 16) making a formal appeal against plans to include eight British and German scientists on a key research evaluation board at the Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM), amid fears that too much power is passing from the scientists to the management.

The national union of scientific research workers (SNTRS-CGT) is to make its appeal at a tribunal in Paris, opposing a decision by INSERM director-general Christian Brechot to include the eight foreign scientists on a scientific council due to meet next week.

The independent tribunal, which settles disputes about administrative issues, would have the power to stop the move on the grounds that INSERM's constitution does not allow non-French scientists to sit on the scientific council, Jean Kister, the head of SNTRS-CGT, told The Scientist.

Kister said that the changes in the system of evaluation are accelerating a shift of power from independent scientific committees–made up of scientists from France and abroad–to a relatively small scientific board made up of only 30 scientists, now to be joined by the foreign scientists.

Benedicta Rocha, an INSERM scientist at University Hospital Necker in Paris, said that the changes would not lead to an improvement in the evaluation system. "This move appears only political," she said. "These eight experts will not cover the multitude of subjects of research in INSERM. Thus, they will not improve the quality of evaluation."

She added, "Their presence, however, will give credibility to the scientific council in its role in evaluating the projects; something they should not be doing in the first place."

Rocha said that Brechot was undermining the quality of scientific evaluation at INSERM by overruling the views of the independent committees of scientists. "The scientific council's hearings will take only 15 minutes compared to one or two days by specialized scientific commissions, and the panel listening to the oral presentation may not even have a single specialist on the subject," she noted.

Françoise Cavaillé, an INSERM biologist at the Saint Antoine Hospital in Paris, also expressed fears that the eight overseas scientists would be asked to make decisions about policy and management issues without having adequate knowledge. "The scientific council makes decisions about the organization and operation of research facilities too, so there is an ambiguity about its role," she told The Scientist.

She also opposed the decision to make English the language of some of the key sessions, insisting that many French scientists and technical staff would struggle to communicate effectively in what is for them a foreign language.

Brechot rejected the criticism. He told The Scientist Thursday that the British and German scientists would only give advice on the organization of the research centers, but not themselves make any decisions.

"Experts all over the world face the same problems when it comes to the organization of research centers. It will be very valuable for us to see the perspectives of our research centers in the context of Europe, as evaluated by these experts," he said. "Our aim is to have more critical mass, a more European dimension, more visibility in Europe. You cannot have a research agency in Europe without strong links to the European evaluation system."

He added that the purpose of the scientific council was not to evaluate all the research proposals in detail. "These evaluations will already have been done in the usual way in INSERM. The aim of the board and of the oral presentations is to harmonize opinions. For example, if a researcher has a poor rating in one scientific committee but a good overall publication rate in another, the board can listen to all sides of the issue and make a decision," he said.

"I appreciate that not all scientists feel at ease in expressing themselves in English when it comes to sophisticated scientific matters, and that is why translators will be available to help," he said.