Connecting European Neuroscience

Interview with the new President of the French Society for Neuroscience

Jean-Antoine Girault, director, Fer à Moulin Institute (Paris, France) gives us insights about the recent changes for the French neuroscience community.

  • FENS: You became president of the French Society for Neuroscience last November, and among your many duties will be the overseeing of the society’s next meeting in Bordeaux in May 2017. It is only recently in the society’s 27-year history that its meeting takes place entirely in English. Why did the society decide to switch from French?

    JAG: We wanted to internationalise the meeting to attract more non-French speakers and attendees. At the same time, the number of international scientists in France who do not speak French fluently has increased – not only students and post-docs, but also increasing numbers of international principal investigators.

    The switch also gives an opportunity to French participants who are not used to communicating in English to improve their skills. Their number is decreasing rapidly though - young students are much more comfortable with English than their predecessors.

Some people may regret having lost an opportunity to give and hear scientific talks in French. But overall I think the advantages clearly outweigh the disadvantages and I have heard very few complaints. Our next biennial meeting will be NeuroFrance 2017 in Bordeaux (17-19 May 2017) and we want it to be really international. I strongly encourage all European neuroscientists to participate. 

  • FENS: To what extent has the advent of FENS been able to support the development of French science?

JAG: The existence of FENS strengthens the field of neuroscience at the European level, and this level is more and more relevant for every European country. French scientists actively participate in many international consortia, particularly those funded by the European Commission, to their great benefit. The creation of the European Brain Council (by FENS, along with other European organisations) has also been very positive. And the FENS meeting has improved such a lot during the last decade that it has become an important Europe-level event.

FENS: The system of distribution of research funds in France changed ten years ago to focus more on funding cross-institution research programmes and less on individual institutes themselves. How has this approach impacted neuroscience in France?

JAG: The key change in France was the creation of the Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR) in 2005, a national research agency in charge of funding research grants on a competitive basis, covering all scientific fields. This was a major step forward, since before 2005 there had been very few grant opportunities, with only modest institutional funding of laboratories by CNRS, Inserm, and, to a lesser extent, universities. This old system may have been suitable 30 or 40 years ago when there were fewer labs and when research in biology was much cheaper. But it had become insufficient - and also very unfair, fostering a hierarchical, mandarin organization.

The creation of ANR, whose funding peaked in 2008, helped France to catch up. Unfortunately, in part because of the economic crisis, funding has since decreased steadily to less than half its peak value. This has generated a lot of tension and obviously it jeopardises research. When its funding was sufficient, ANR was clearly beneficial for the development of research.  For example since 2011 more than 10 young investigators who obtained an ANR grant later obtained an ERC starting or consolidator grant. We really hope that a recent announcement of an ANR budget increase will become a reality very soon. Besides ANR, Inserm and CNRS together also have every year grants (ATIP/Avenir) which are extremely helpful to support young independent investigators. 

  • FENS: Following the Paris attack, French research agencies called for research proposals to help them understand the roots of terrorism, and how to deal with terrorism. How might neuroscience contribute?
  • JAG: Since any behaviour is the result of brain activity, neuroscience could at some point try to identify what may account for ideology-driven fanaticism, mass killings, and suicide attacks…. These behaviours are not new and reveal something profound about the ‘dark sides’ of our brain potential. However, I doubt that neuroscientific approaches could provide much practical help right now to deal with the current situation - even if I am sure some interesting work can be done.
  • In the short term social sciences and anthropology would probably be more useful in helping to understand the context and causes leading to the expression of this ‘dark potential’, and thereby help fight it at its roots. These disciplines would also be able to debunk some of the unfounded or biased explanations echoed by the media and social networks.
  • On the other hand, we should also think of the victims who suffer from various forms of post-traumatic stress disorders.
  • Neuroscience has already helped to decipher the bases of such disorders and provided new tools and ideas to help clinicians  give better care for patients. But more research and progress is definitely needed.

FENS: Your own research is in intracellular signalling mechanisms and neuronal plasticity, but as society president you are exposed to a wide range of topics. During your two-year period of office, what neuroscientific breakthroughs do you predict you might see?

JAG: Close to my field, the tremendous progress in sequencing and proteomics should allow the signalling responses in homogenous cell populations or even single cells to be elaborated, also at transcriptional and epigenetic levels. At the same time the advances in high performance live imaging and biosensors will allow unprecedented insights on the precise timing and intracellular localization of signalling responses. At more integrated levels, the combination of powerful tracing methods and chemo-/optogenetics will continue to generate exciting discoveries about the anatomo-functional basis of behaviour and connectomics should soon provide the long-awaited, exhaustive circuit mapping of neuronal systems, first in invertebrates. Gene-targeting experiments in both animals and cells will get a strong push from the use of Crispr/Cas9. Responsible use of iPSCs offers a novel window on brain disorders, particularly in psychiatry. Increased power of computer modelling and human brain imaging techniques will also generate new important insights here.

It is hard to predict, however, exactly when all this may come together to bridge the mechanistic gap between molecular cell biology and behaviour and cognition that lies at the centre of neuroscience. New ideas may be necessary and the field is wide open to innovative approaches. The times are really exciting for neuroscience and should be more attractive than ever for young scientists and bright students.