French scientists oppose nominee to head agricultural research institute

French scientists are protesting a plan to oust Francois Houllier, president of France’s agricultural research institute.

Global Bioeconomy Summit (CC BY-ND 2.0)

French scientists oppose nominee to head agricultural research institute

French scientists are sharply criticizing the nomination of a policy specialist to become the new president of the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA).  The critics say nominee Philippe Mauguin, a senior official in France’s agriculture ministry, knows little about research and was offered the job as a political favor ahead of next year’s general elections. Mauguin was competing for the post against outgoing INRA President François Houllier, a former researcher.

“We, INRA members of staff and associated members, protest against the possible parachuting of a political figure external to the world of research at the head of our Institute,” reads an online petition launched 5 July by a collective called @INRAlerte. The petition has so far gathered more than 2300 signatures.

On 1 July, as Mauguin and Houllier were being interviewed for the post by an expert committee, the collective released a 30-page statement to the press demanding that government officials withdraw Mauguin’s application “because science is not a political reward.”

Mauguin, who has served as chief of staff at the agriculture ministry since 2012, has spent his career working on agricultural policy at a number of public agencies. Many signers of the petition see Mauguin as a poor fit to lead INRA because he doesn’t hold a Ph.D.

Others, meanwhile, praise Houllier, citing his 30-year research career and performance as INRA president. Houllier had done a “remarkable job at the helm of INRA,” which “makes the decision to replace him difficult to understand,” wrote Frédéric Dardel, the chair of INRA’s scientific council, in an open letter yesterday. Dardel announced that he was resigning from the council to protest Mauguin’s nomination.

The nomination, @INRAlerte alleges, is the result of a political deal made years ago between Mauguin and agriculture minister Stéphane Le Foll. In its 30-page statement, the collective details allegations of political machinations that led to delays in the selection process and pressure on Houllier to accept alternative posts. @INRAlerte also argues the process was rife with conflicts of interest, because the agriculture ministry oversees the selection process, together with the ministry of higher education and research.

Le Foll defended the nomination in the French Parliament yesterday, saying that “many chiefs of staff have been nominated to lead research institutions.” He also called the accusations of conflict of interest “a lie.” On 5 July, in a tweet, Le Foll wrote that the selection process was “transparent” and “will go all the way to completion.”

The French Parliament must still approve Mauguin’s appointment to the 4-year INRA presidency, which is expected to begin on 26 July. If that happens, @INRAlerte says it will ask France’s supreme court to block the appointment. There is still time, the group said in a statement, “to oppose a nomination that is dangerous for French research, its credibility and its international recognition.”