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Accueil / Les archives / Archives 2004 / International - Let’s save research ! / France, your research is losing its head

France, your research is losing its head

The reduction of research support imperils the future of an area of French excellence

Par luc, le 8 mars 2004

Ceci est la version anglaise d’un article de Gordon M. Shepherd (France, ta recherche perd la tête), paru dans Libération du 16 janvier 2004.

France, ta recherche perd la tete.

La reduction des credits de la recherche penalise l’avenir d’un secteur d’excellence francaise.

(France, your research is losing its head.

The reduction of research support imperils the future of an area of French excellence).

I write to express a deep concern about the declining support for basic research on the brain in France. When I gave a series of four lecons at the College de France in 1986 neuroscience was relatively strong in France. A generation of investigators after the Second World War had obtained superb training and had rebuilt the strong tradition of France in the brain sciences, establishing world class laboratories at the College de France, Ecole Normale Superieure, Institut Pasteur and elsewhere. They became leaders in their fields and attracted students and visitors from around the world. For example, the American Eric Kandel learned methods for studying snails in the 1960s under Ladislav Tauc at Gif-sur-Yvette, which led to his recent Nobel Prize for revealing fundamental mechanisms underlying memory in snails that apply generally throughout the animal world, including humans.

Over the subsequent two decades, on numerous visits in France, I have seen an increasing erosion of this excellence. Today, on my visits I see leading laboratories in Paris without funds to purchase routine pharmacological drugs to study nervous connections. In Paris and the Isle de France region I have found departments and laboratories with outstanding investigators with international reputations who lack funds for essential equipment, for purchasing their experimental preparations, for positions for critical personnel such as postdoctoral fellows, and for attending international meetings. I have met students with no prospects in France, whose only way to pursue their passion for neuroscience is to emigrate ; laboratory chiefs who despair of competing with their international colleagues ; and heads of institutions who are frustrated at the sinking fortunes of neuroscience in France despite their continual efforts to remedy the situation.

Current studies of the brain around the world require sophisticated instrumentation. Among these is the laser-based two-photon microscope, costing between 300,000-500,000 euros, which can image the smallest neural structures, down to the tiny appendages called spines. Spines receive the individual synaptic connections that make neurons able to communicate with each other. They are the new frontier for analysing mechanisms underlying cognition and memory in the cerebral cortex, and understanding what goes wrong with them in such diseases as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. I have one of these in my own laboratory, as do many of my colleagues ; the Pasteur Institute has one of these instruments for the entire campus (approximately 2,500 researchers). Recently in Heidelberg I visited one of the Max Planck Institutes, which are devoted to basic biological research and equivalent in prestige to the Pasteur Institute and the Grandes Ecoles. In this one institute alone there are 9 two-photon microscopes.

What has happened to bring about this disparity of resources ? In the US, in the early 1990s there was a squeeze on the federal budget. In response, leaders of the country’s universities and medical schools, together with profesional societies, united to make the case to the Congress and administration that federally supported biomedical research was critical for stimulating the economy with new start up businesses and new trained personnel for the pharmaceutical industry. This led to the acceptance of the goal of doubling the NIH biomedical research budget over the following decade. That goal has been reached. This has been down through both Democratic and Republican administrations ; there is a consensus across both parties that this is in the interest of the nation.

During this period it appears that the biomedical research budget in France has not only stagnated, but even lost ground. How can this persist, and leave France with any chance to compete in the critical areas of brain research in the years ahead ?

The key to the vigorous funding of biomedical research in general and brain science in particular in the US was the acceptance at the highest levels of governmnent by all political parties that this was an investment that directly benefitted the citizens through improvements in health and stimulus to the economy. Thus it is a mistake to think that basic research is a luxury that a country like France can no longer afford. Either the massive buildup in the US is a waste of money, or the French political view is naive. The same can be said of other European governments, such as the UK, Scandinavian countries, Germany and Italy, who have also let their support for biomedical research stagnate.

Several years ago I was on a visiting committee to review one of the leading research institutes in France, at Gif-sur-Yvette. The project leaders presented their programs and their financial needs. It was mostly excellent research, but the funding requests were pitifully small. My main criticism, echoed by another outside reviewer, was that the requests for facilities were far too modest. The reply of course was that they knew the CNRS had little money, so it was useless to ask. My answer was, if you don’t ask, there will be no pressure on the government to bring its research facilities up to an international level. That is the kind of pressure that produced the results in the US.

The problem of France’s stagnation is therefore not at the level of the individual research worker. Nor is it at the level of the funding agencies, which would obviously love to have more funds to support critical work. The problem lies instead at the highest levels of government and its organization of support for medicine and research. Judging from the US example, the solution requires : support by all major political parties that it is in the interests of the nation ; inspired leadership by individuals in the administration and the legislature who have the vision and political courage to make this their mission ; and combined pressure by the universities, medical schools, and professional societies including medical societies.

As indicated above, when pressure on the government was needed in the US, the entire medical system supported the increase in funding for basic research. It was obvious that doctors will not have new drugs to combat Alzheimer’s diseases and SIDA, nor new facilities to carry out brain scans at ever higher levels of resolution, without the necessary basic research. In contrast, any unwillingness of the medical profession to support increased basic research funding plays itself out in the individual tragedies of patients who suffer from the delays in medical advances.

Another answer to the problem is to expand the funding agencies. For neuroscience, government funding in France comes almost exclusively from the CNRS and INSERM. In the US, I have received significant government funding from five institutes within the National Institutes of Health, plus the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Department of Defense. NIH supports our cellular studies on the neural basis of the sense of smell, NSF supported our development of brain scans showing that smells lay down odor images in the brain, NASA was interested in developing miniaturized smell biosensors for controlling the accumulation of wastes in the air on space flights, the DOD has been interested in developing smell biosensors for detection of underground land mines and narcotics smuggled through airports, and they all have contributed to our development of neuroinformatics to build databases supporting neuroscience research. Thus, there have been maximum possibilities for the development of applications of our basic science, to our benefit and to the benefit of many funding agencies. This model, of opening up different agencies to provide for multiple avenues for supporting and benefiting from basic research, needs to be pursued in France and the rest of Europe.

Finally, France, as in other countries, needs trained students to enter the workforce to promote basic biomedical research in the service of the citizens. Most students trained in neuroscience in France must seek postdoctoral training elsewhere, usually in the US. Few of these can return to positions in France, because there are no positions. Thus, an enormous investment is lost to the nation, for now and for future generations.

One of the new frontiers in biomedical science and in neuroscience is genomics and proteomics, which trace their origins back to the glory days of molecular biology under Jacob and Monod in France. The new methods for identifying genes and proteins in the brain now need to be married to the methods for characterizing brain function. It will take trained students to do this. France needs not only to retain its French students, but needs also to be involved in the training of foreign students. The world is being flooded with Chinese students eager to take on these challenges ; I have trained almost a dozen in my own laboratory in the past 6 years. Few are coming to France, or elsewhere in Europe. Without participating in neuroscience on an international scale, how will France establish new relationships to carry on this work in the global economy ? France and the brain need each other. The French are cartesians, and since their minds are trained in a skeptical mode of thought, one must question the priorities they have retained to face the challenges of the XXIst century. Does there exist in France the political will to meet the new challenges of brain science ?

Gordon M. Shepherd, Pasteur Institute, 2 January 2004.


The author is Professor of Neuroscience at Yale University School of Medicine. His contributions to Neuroscience include the brain mechanisms underlying the sense of smell and the organization of brain microcircuits. He has been editor-in-chief of the Journal of Neuroscience, a deputy provost of Yale University, and a scientific advisor to the National Institutes of Health. In France he has been a visiting professor at the College de France (1986) and Ecole Normale Superieure (1991), and is currently visiting professor at the Institut Pasteur. He was a member of the Conseil Scientifique to the CNRS for the Institut Fessard (1999) and is currently a member of the Conseil Scientifique for the Department of Biology of the Ecole Normale Supérieure. He has delivered ’leçons’ at the College de France, and has lectured at the University of Lyon, Ecole Normale Supérieure, Institut Pasteur, l’Hopital Salpétrière, Gif-sur-Yvette, Massy, Bordeaux, and the Centre pour l’Olfaction et du Goût (CNRS). He has trained over 50 investigators in his laboratory, including from France an undergraduate student, a postdoctoral fellow, and a visiting professor.

This letter was based on conversations with numerous colleagues in and around Paris during a triennial leave at the Pasteur Institute in the fall of 2003. It was originally addressed to President Chirac. It was translated into French by Dr. Gilles Gheusi, submitted by Dr. Pierre-Marie Lledo, Pasteur Institute, and appeared in Liberation 16 January 2004. By chance, this was several days after an email campaign that gathered 3,000 signatures in support of a letter to President Chirac that appeared in Le Monde, demanding better funding for all scientific research in France.