Boosting Independence to Attract Young Talent

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Having good ideas and the money, personnel, and time to develop them are very different things, as many exasperated young scientists have realised. In France, in particular, postdocs and freshly recruited scientists are members of large research units led by a single director, and it is often difficult for them to make their mark as independent group leaders. They may have intellectual independence, and small grants from different foundations can help them achieve some financial independence, but it is still difficult to assemble a team because such grants are not substantial enough to pay postdoc, or even student, salaries.

In recent years, however, a number of new programmes have sprung up to give young scientists in France a taste of independence: ATIP from CNRS; the Ministry of Research's ACI programme; and, most recently, Avenir.

Meaning "future," the Avenir programme was launched in 2001 by the national institute for health and medical research (INSERM). Its goal is to support innovative projects proposed by young scientists who wish to conduct their research in a French laboratory. The applicant scientist may be of any nationality, may or may not hold a permanent position, and the laboratory will preferably (but not necessarily) be part of an INSERM unit. For 3 years, Avenir offers these "young" (although no age limit is specified) scientists research expenses of ? 60,000 per year, a salary for those who do not have a permanent position, at least 50 square meters of lab space, plus a salary for a postdoctoral fellow.

In its first year, Avenir received almost 200 applications, and roughly half of the candidates were asked to defend their projects before a commission composed of national and international experts. Twenty-six candidates were finally selected: seven out of 98 postdoc applicants, 13 of 57 scientists with a permanent position with INSERM or another research institution, and six of 39 hospital or university staff. Avenir's second round closed in November 2002 and, again, approximately 200 applications were received, this time from a greater number of people living outside of France. The lucky grantees will be selected early this year.

So much for the bald facts--what does the Avenir programme mean for the individual scientist? As one of the recipient postdocs puts it, "it is an excellent way of entering INSERM through the front door." Mario Pende, another postdoc grant holder of Italian nationality, thinks that Avenir gave him a unique opportunity to stay in Europe: "This programme contributes to making France an attractive country for scientists, open to young people and to foreigners." For Arielle Rosenberg, who works as a staff scientist at the Cochin Institute, receiving an Avenir fellowship meant that INSERM officially recognized and valued her research. "Thanks to Avenir, I am now considered and respected by my colleagues as an independent group leader," she says. "It has enabled me to develop a new research project from scratch." It has also permitted her to continue her activities in both hospital and university.

"The fact that there is no age limit is very important and makes this programme unique" says Philippe Herbomel, an Avenir recipient with a permanent position. Having spent his first 5 years in that position establishing his own research theme and tools to study zebrafish development, "now it is thanks to this programme that I can expand and fully develop it."

So what do the chosen few think tipped the balance in their favour? One postdoc grantee believes the fact that his proposed project was a good fit with INSERM's strategic research themes was important. "This is certainly a factor," says Pende, "but the quality and innovative aspects of the project are decisive." Further, "it is important to show that you have an established network of collaborations and that you are not working all alone in your corner," he points out. Indeed, according to Olivier Chassande, from Lyon, the fact that his project was not sufficiently integrated with his host research unit was one of the reasons he did not receive an Avenir award last year. This year, he explains, "I have redefined my project so [that] it fits much better with the general research theme of my unit and have started to develop multidisciplinary interactions with physicists." According to Rosenberg, "one is judged not only on a scientific basis, but also on other criteria, such as maturity and capacity to direct a group."

For Spaniard Angelita Rebollo, who recently obtained an INSERM position and works on the regulation of cell death, even the application process was valuable. "After discussing my project [with the review commission] and how I intended to address some of the questions, I realised that [it] had actually given me some good ideas," she admits. Rebollo is pleased that she can now "concentrate on my science for 3 years without having to worry about applying for other grants."

It is perhaps not surprising that the Avenir recipients consider themselves very fortunate. They do, nevertheless, see some room for improving the programme. In fact, one of its biggest advantages--the possibility that awardees can fund a postdoc position--has its drawback. Currently, only foreign candidates who are younger than 40 years old and have lived in France for less than 1 year can be appointed to these positions. "When you are starting a group, it is very difficult to attract good-quality foreign postdocs to your lab and to do so quickly," points out one grant holder. "It is often easier to find a French postdoc, or foreign students [who] have already been in France for several years," says Pierre Chauvin, a scientist with an INSERM position who has used his Avenir award to launch a team looking at the social factors that affect health and people's use of medical care.

Moreover, awardees who are starting their projects from scratch do not think that 3 years is enough time to produce results. "It would be good to have the possibility to apply for another 3 years if the project has not been finished but is yielding promising results" proposes one of the fellows. This observation prompts an evident although prickly question: What happens to the grant holders and their projects at the end of their funding period? "The postdoc grantees should ideally have succeeded in obtaining a permanent position during those 3 years," says Marie-Catherine Postel-Vinay, the coordinator of Avenir. Those that already held a permanent position simply return to the daily struggle of raising research funds after the award is up.

Meanwhile, Avenir grantees would like more assistance in networking with other newly independent scientists. Herbomel points to EMBO's young investigator programme as an example of an initiative that offers "the possibility to integrate with a European network, have access to technological platforms, profit from a senior mentor, and publish a review in EMBO reports."

INSERM will have to wait and watch for a few years to gauge the extent to which Avenir succeeds in its goal of boosting the careers of selected young scientists--and to detect and solve any problems that they may encounter along the way. As Herbomel puts it, "as long as the programme remains flexible, it will be able to respond quickly and efficiently [to such problems]." For example, effective from the current round of awards, the quota of postdoctoral awards has been increased, although alongside this change, INSERM has also decided "to adjust [postdoctoral applicant's] research expenses according to the quality of their research project and experience," says Postel-Vinay. That means this group could end up with less than the ? 60,000 that other awardees have to spend.

And in a novel twist introduced for the second year of the program, INSERM has encouraged "binominal" applications, from pairs of researchers with complementary projects--linking for example, a specialist in a certain type of technology and a scientist whose research is based on its applications. It's an idea that meets with approval from several Avenir recipients. "I could certainly have profited from this," says Chauvin, "by submitting a project in collaboration with a postdoctoral scientist."

"Mobility, in terms of research themes, is something we really want to encourage, and Avenir was designed to make this easier for young scientists," says Postel-Vinay. That means not only disciplinary mobility but geographical mobility, too. INSERM is hoping that a number of young scientists will decide to try their luck in France and seize the opportunity to develop an original project, with a good deal of freedom at an early stage of their research careers.

Adelaida Sarukhan is an INSERM researcher.

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