French Science Agencies Fare Well With Review Panels

PARIS--At the end of 2008, France's Evaluation Agency for Research and Education (AERES) offered a devastating critique of the country's of the country's National Institute for Health and Medical Research (INSERM). Yesterday, AERES released much more muted evaluation reports on the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) and the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA).

Still, the AERES committee looking at CEA, which has recently evolved from just directing nuclear energy research to setting the research agenda for many areas of technology, had the odd harsh word. Committee chair Jean-Claude Lehmann, a physicist and former president of France's Academy of Engineering, accused the agency of "hegemony" in trying to impose their economic models on industry. "The CEA should provide the technology and then leave it up to industry to do the rest," he told reporters.

The word hegemony does not actually appear in the AERES report, because the committee "has to be more low-key," Lehmann says. Even so, CEA chair Bernard Bigot denies the charge. "We don't have this state of mind or abusive pretension," he says. "We are rather in a logic of listening."

For Lehmann, the most important tasks ahead of the CEA are to change its mix of activities in light of the new responsibilities in non-nuclear technologies that the government assigned to it. "This was because universities and other agencies did not have sufficient capacity," Lehmann says. Lehman adds that the government should restore independence to the position of atomic energy high commissioner, which has now become the de facto CEA scientific director,

The report also urges CEA to follow up the start-up firms it promotes, to cooperate more with industry, and to be more adventurous in scientific and technological research even if that means accepting failure on occasion. The report also called for a CEA-wide ethics committee. Bigot reject that last recommendation, saying he prefers different laboratories to examine ethical problems on a case-by-case basis. Despite the AERES report recdomendation, Lehman says that solution "suits me." 

INRA had an easier time from AERES than CEA. "Most of the recommendations for INRA are already being implemented, which is very encouraging," says Rudy Rabbinge, chair of the agency's evaluation committee and a biologist at the Wageningen University in the Netherlands. INRA "is very advanced and flexible, and is recognized as the leader in its field in Europe,"  Rabbinge told reporters at the AERES briefing
The committee's recommendations include reorganizing INRA's science council, increasing its international visibility, streamlining the agency's organizational structure, and developing more detailed socio-economic measurements of the impact of INRA's work. AERES also recommends a greater focus for INRA on food and the environment in economic and international partnerships. Of these recommendations, only the science council remains outstanding, Rabbinge says. He also called for INRA to work with CEA on solar cells to promote the shift from fossil to solar energy.
The AERES evaluation schedule for this year includes the French Petroleum Institute (IFP), the French Space Agency (CNES) and the French Research Institute for Development (IRD).
The INRA and CEA evaluation reports are posted in French at