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"I am absolutely determined to treat scientific integrity issues most seriously and without any complacency," Antoine Petit (above) says.

©Inria/Photo C. Morel

Computer scientist to lead French research giant; interim head leaves amid misconduct allegations

Computer scientist Antoine Petit, 57, is the new head of Europe's largest research organization. On Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron named Petit as president of CNRS, France's national research agency headquartered in Paris. Petit, who until now headed the French National Institute for Computer Science and Applied Mathematics (Inria), succeeds chemist Alain Fuchs, who left CNRS in October 2017.

There was an unusual twist to Petit's appointment, however. On 18 January, a week before the official procedure ended, the French government named Petit interim president of CNRS, a position that had been held by cell biologist Anne Peyroche since Fuchs's departure. In a statement, the French research ministry said Peyroche was "currently prevented” from continuing in her role. A ministry spokesperson declined to elaborate, but said the decision was made "to guarantee the continuity of governance at CNRS."

But many wonder whether Peyroche's premature departure is linked to misconduct allegations. Last November, comments on the website PubPeer raised suspicions of image manipulation in five articles published by Peyroche between 2001 and 2012; she and her co-authors have addressed the comments on two of the papers. Peyroche's main employer, the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) in Gif-sur-Yvette, has launched an internal investigation, a CEA spokesperson says.

Peyroche, who did not respond to requests for comment, also had a position as chief research officer at CNRS, from which she resigned on 19 January. Petit says that scientists accused of misconduct have a right to defend themselves and should be presumed innocent until proven guilty. But CNRS must be "exemplary," he says: “I am absolutely determined to treat scientific integrity issues most seriously and without any complacency."

With more than 31,000 researchers, engineers, and technicians working in all scientific disciplines and the humanities, CNRS has an annual budget of €3.2 billion, a quarter of French public spending on civilian research.

A specialist in the use of mathematical methods to verify algorithms, Petit spent the first 2 decades of his professional life doing research and teaching at various universities and CNRS. Between 2001 and 2004, he worked at the French research ministry; he then held various management positions at CNRS for a couple years before joining Inria, where he became president and CEO in October 2014. 

Petit says he hopes to give CNRS and science in general a more important role in society and make France a bigger player at the international level. CNRS research units often gather researchers from other agencies and universities under multiple layers of governance; Petit says he'd like to see fewer of the uniquely French and “rather derisory” disputes that sometimes result, and instead focus researchers and managers on moving French research forward.

He also wants CNRS to promote scientific literacy among the general public and French policymakers and “lobby for a greater role of France” in European decisions on large research infrastructure and funding calls. That may become easier now that the United Kingdom, a powerful player in science policy, is leaving the European Union.

“Petit is an energetic leader with a deep respect for researchers” and a proven ability “to convince people around him,” says François Sillion, the acting CEO of Inria and former deputy CEO for science under Petit. Petit comes across as “someone who is very frank and determined,” says Patrick Lemaire, a CNRS developmental biologist at the Cell Biology Research Center of Montpellier in France. The new president “seems to break out of the technocratic mold … with a global vision of the role CNRS could play in and for society,” Lemaire adds.

Petit faces some major challenges, however. One will be to make CNRS more “agile and reactive,” as he pledged during a parliamentary hearing preceding his nomination. Another is increasing the agency's budget, which has dwindled in the recent years and is spent mostly to staff salaries, leaving not enough to run experiments. “I would be thrilled if I obtain an important raise” from the government, Petit says, but he also hopes to raise more money from competitive grants in France and the European Union and from industry partnerships.

Petit says he'd like to raise the salary of young staff researchers, which he says is “not very decent” and puts CNRS “in a position of weakness” in the international competition for talent. Having well-equipped labs and research budgets is more important than the number of researchers, he says, using a Brazilian soccer player as an example. “If you recruit Neymar and you haven’t got enough money to buy him a ball to play football, this is a bit stupid.”