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French funding agency president resigns amidst tensions

Michael Matlosz, president and CEO of the French National Research Agency (ANR) in Paris, resigned today following months of controversy over how the agency handles grant proposal evaluations.

Arnaud Torres, who currently oversees ANR programs that support research clusters, will be the agency’s interim head.

Matlosz, a U.S.-born chemical engineer, presented his letter of resignation earlier this week after agreeing that the agency needs “a new impetus,” according to an 18 July statement from France’s research ministry, which oversees ANR. 

Scientists close to the agency tell ScienceInsider that the resignation came amidst escalating tensions between Maltosz and scientists charged with evaluating grant applications. “We were rather discontented about the way evaluations were carried out because, apparently without previous consultation of scientists, ANR introduced certain procedures that were … a little bit heterodox,” says Bernard Hoflack, a proteomics researcher at the Technische Universität in Dresden, Germany. Hoflack headed ANR’s scientific evaluation panel for cellular and developmental biology in this year’s main request for proposals. Demands from scientists to solve the issues were not heard, Hoflack says.

ANR, which was created in 2005 to fund projects in all scientific disciplines, is France’s main competitive research agency. It has about 280 staff members and an annual budget of more than €600 million. Over the years, ANR’s dwindling funding and success rates—now 12.5% for proposals across all fields—have caused dissatisfaction among researchers, and increased frustration with perceived inefficiencies in how the agency evaluates applications. Many researchers claim the situation became worse after Maltosz took the helm of the agency in 2014.

Over the past 2 years, the agency has experienced several public crises. In March 2016, it dismissed sociologist François Héran from his position as head of ANR’s social sciences and humanities department; the move apparently came after he led a call for reform in the agency’s governance. Héran and other department directors reportedly were unhappy that ANR expert researchers were not involved in the day-to-day operations of the agency. In June 2016, members of one of the agency’s evaluation panels—for mathematics and informatics—resigned en masse to protest the agency’s funding and administrative practices.

Last month, ANR dismissed another department director—molecular biologist Catherine Dargemont, who led biology and health programs—after her group complained to ANR’s administrative board. In particular, it said that agency officials were bypassing scientific expertise in the agency’s governance, damaging the quality of proposal evaluations.

At about the same time, Hoflack and his panel sent a letter to Matlosz, in which they deplored cumbersome and time-consuming procedures for recruiting external referees and fuzzy selection criteria for the funding of young researchers. They also criticized a measure introduced this year, which according to the ANR website aims to give applicants a chance to contest external reviews before they are used by the panels to rank proposals. But Hoflack’s panel said that, in practice, the policy has created confusion and raised false hopes among applicants.

In its statement, the ministry broadly defended Matlosz’s tenure, saying among other things that he had “reorganized the agency and introduced important simplification measures in … its annual funding calls.” Matlosz has now been asked to write a report on public funding mechanisms in France. (Matlosz declined ScienceInsider’s request for comment.)

Outside researchers are cautiously optimistic that the move could help resolve some of the tensions. Matlosz’s resignation “is very good news and will open, I hope, a new era in the functioning of this agency,” says Patrick Lemaire, a developmental biologist at the Cell Biology Research Center of Montpellier in France. He belongs to a grassroots association of scientists that over the last few years has called for national reforms and better funding in science.

But it is unlikely that the research ministry’s promise of a “reorientation” at ANR—by returning the agency “fully to the service of researchers’ projects”—will end widespread unhappiness over funding issues. In the latest blow, the new government of President Emmanuel Macron announced last week that that the 2017 higher education and research budget is to be cut by €331 million, as part of sweeping national budget cuts. The cut is expected to hamper Macron’s campaign promise to not only preserve public spending on science, but to boost the nation’s overall spending on research to 3% of gross domestic product; now, France spends 2.24% of GDP on research.

Still, theoretical physicist Édouard Brézin, former president of the French Academy of Sciences in Paris, is holding out hope for better times. “In a context where the budgets are amputated, we’re not in a good shape,” he says. But “we are still waiting” to see what happens next.