France's biggest public research body, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, has been shaken by revelations of malpractice by the country's cancer charity ARC. The scandal is expected to lead to immediate and radical changes in the centre's practices, particularly to sources of income.
A report by the national audit office, the Cour des Comptes, has confirmed that only .2 per cent of ARC's Pounds 70 million budget is spent on research. A previous investigation and report ordered by the health ministry was not followed up.
Judicial investigations are now under way to decide whether ARC's relations with a series of companies handling its huge public information contracts should be subject to criminal charges.
Less than 60 per cent of the sum finally given to research by ARC is distributed according to the decisions of its scientific committees. Much of the remainder was handed out directly by president and founder Jacques Crozemarie, a retired CNRS electrical engineer.
ARC's funding of the centre's cancer research laboratories has been extremely uneven. The audit revealed that ARC paid "bonuses" to ten researchers. The centre says at present it does not intend to discipline them because they will probably be required to pay back the money and believed "in good faith" that ARC declared the sums it paid them.
The director of the life sciences department of the CNRS, Pierre Tambourin, who represents the research body on ARC's board, had criticised mismanagement of ARC's funds in the past but failed to gain the support of other board members. "I have been trying to alert people to the problem since I joined the board three years ago.
"The researchers had an idea what was going on, but there was no solid proof. They were hostages of the situation," he said. "Even the CNRS life science ethics committee did not want to publish a text I wrote because I lacked proof." When a fresh spate of allegations about mismanagement of the charity arose last year, a number of the centre's researchers sprung to its defence in a letter to the press.
Alain Gouyette, a cancer specialist who heads a research unit at the Institut Gustave Roussy near Paris, was one of those who signed the letter. "It was not a refusal to tackle the problem," he said. "I was supporting the role of charities in funding cancer research."
ARC has designated a six-person team to investigate the audit office findings and respond.