Health scientists resist reforms

January 23, 1998

Claude Allegre, French education and research minister, is pushing for reforms to revive medical research.

But the battlelines are being drawn at the National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) as implications of the reform sink in.

Mr Allegre believes France is lagging behind its competitors in medical research, particularly in instrumentation, pharmaceutics, physiology and biotechnology. His reforms are designed to "develop" these sectors and "open out a structure that is too closed in on itself".

The minister wants to reduce the role of INSERM's scientific council to a contributor on policy while directional power is devolved to a board of directors with a majority of members nominated by the prime minister.

He wants to create more formal links between INSERM, hospitals and universities and to split the organisation into five departments to encourage applied research.

Nicolette Farman, a director of medical research at INSERM and member of the National Union of Scientific Researchers, said the changes were of a similar magnitude to those brought about in 1983 when INSERM staff won civil service status.

"But what is sad here is that the moves are technocratic and authoritarian. Changes are being imposed and when that happens they usually don't work. A democratic approach takes longer and it will delay proceedings but it is best in the long run," Dr Farman said.

"The new board of directors would clearly take its orders from the government, leaving scientists and researchers little room for manoeuvre. Strategies will be fixed in advance.

"In the past, INSERM's 11 internal commissions reported to the scientific committee. The director general gave impetus to INSERM's policy direction on the basis of the information provided and the opinion was more or less followed by the government," she added.

Dr Farman is one of 120 laboratory directors who, with 130 members of INSERM's internal scientific committees, have signed a public declaration warning that any attempt to restructure INSERM from the top risks jeopardising biomedical research.

More than 400 of INSERM's 5,000 staff members have also signed a union-sponsored petition calling for "real negotiations" with the government. The union is holding meetings throughout France this month in a bid to head off the minister's proposals.

Dr Farman said researchers are angry at the minister's claim that the organisation is too introverted. "I don't know where he gets that idea from. Mixed research units already exist, we work with many different nationalities. The barriers are in the minister's head,not ours."

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