FRANCE: Life sciences and health research 'needs total overhaul'

The organisation of life sciences and health research in France needs radical and bold reform to streamline and unify its highly fragmented structure, eliminate bureaucracy and give researchers their freedom, according to international experts who also propose creation of a single funding institute for the whole sector.

Their conclusions follow a strategic evaluation of Inserm, France's institute of health and medical research. The inquiry was commissioned by Aeres, the research and higher education evaluation agency, for the Higher Education and Research Ministry.

Inserm, one of France's biggest research centres, is the only one totally dedicated to biological, medical and public health research. Under joint supervision of the ministries of higher education and research and of health, its 13,000 employees include 6,000 researchers working in 316 research units nationwide.

Most of these are in university hospitals and cancer treatment centres, but others are located with the national science research centre and other specialised institutes, and there are also six units abroad. It has numerous partnerships including universities, industry, international agencies, local and regional authorities, patients' associations.

In 2007, Inserm was reorganised around eight thematic institutes covering: neurosciences, neurology and psychiatry; genetics and development; cancer; infectious diseases; circulation, metabolism and nutrition; immunology, haematology and pneumology; public health and health technologies.

The 14-member committee evaluating organisation of the institute and the sector it serves was headed by Elias Zerhouni, Director of the US National Institutes of Health, and included eight foreigners of whom two are Nobel prizewinners.

They acknowledged the "high quality of French science and excellent reputation of many of its institutions and researchers". But "the committee was struck by the extreme fragmentation of the system", said Zerhouni while presenting the committee's report which drew attention to the "large number of government institutions with overlapping missions, research portfolios and redundant bureaucracies".

It continued: "This complex organisational structure, characterised by multiple entities which both operate and fund life sciences and health research, hampers effective national strategic planning, unnecessarily complicates the life of scientists and seriously comprises the efficient and effective use of precious research resources."

France should therefore "boldly streamline and unify the management system of its life sciences and health operations". The committee found that sources of funding for the sector were too numerous and dispersed. Although Inserm had overall charge of life sciences and health research, it did "not control the majority of the resources allocated for this purpose by the French government".

The institute had "responsibility but not sufficient authority to deliver on its mission to conduct and coordinate the nation's life sciences and health research", said the report. "In the end, it will be necessary to reduce the number of agencies and find a simpler formula," said Zerhouni.

The report also said those carrying out research should be separated from those responsible for funding and assessment, to avoid conflicts of interest over finance. It proposed establishing a single funding institute for the whole sector of life sciences and health research.

It recommended a review of the status, pay and career prospects of scientists while also giving researchers more autonomy. "Scientists need as much freedom and as little bureaucracy as possible to carry out multidisciplinary programmes," said Zerhouni.