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Metaprogrammes: orienting and organising agronomic research for global challenges

Two questions for François Houllier, Deputy Director General in charge of scientific organisation, resources and evaluation.

Salon International de l'Agriculture (SIA), Paris 2010. François Houllier. © MAITRE Christophe
Updated on 02/21/2013
Published on 05/05/2011

Why has INRA created these large-scale programmes?

These metaprogrammes were launched to ensure interdisciplinarity and coherence in the research carried out by the Institute. INRA is a mission-oriented research organization. It is expected to consistently produce, assemble, integrate and publish useful information, from the stage of fundamental knowledge to that of practical applications, for the major scientific challenges it faces. Evaluations of the Institute and several of its research divisions revealed a potential for improvement in this area. They also showed that the Institute’s ability to mobilise different disciplines around common goals was both an advantage and an opportunity.

This expectation has grown as a result of increasingly complex challenges in agronomic research, which are better received by the public, and of the quicker pace of scientific and technological change. The need for integration is not specific to the fields of nutrition, the environment agriculture or to France. We have seen an increase in joint programmes led by research agencies and organisations or by the scientific community itself (i.e. joint programming initiatives, shared experimental platforms and infrastructure, major federative programmes and international consortia) on a wide range of issues: the relationship between agriculture and climate change, agriculture and biodiversity, food safety issues and nutritional transition, land use, and the development and applications of animal, microbial and plant genomics.

This is the context in which the metaprogrammes were launched, with two complementary goals: to rise to major scientific challenges by coordinating the work of researchers in cognitive and applied research and to anticipate and support the programmes of research funding agencies in these areas in France, Europe and elsewhere in the world. The prefix ‘meta’ reflects this desire to move beyond traditional programmes, which often entail only parallel and unconnected projects.

The need for coherence, cross-disciplinarity and integration does not exclude other models, however: a mixed approach is intended which combines both metaprogrammes and more traditional methods of conducting research.

What is the international scope of the metaprogrammes?

The international dimension of this project is essential and will facilitate the internationalisation of the Institute’s research.

The metaprogrammes cover areas of research which address major challenges in agronomic research. These challenges are often global in nature or involve many parties (adapting to climate change, for example); they may require that countries pool, share and coordinate resources and efforts which could not be mobilised by one country alone (this is the case in precompetitive research on the metagenomics of digestive ecosystems and exploratory research on microbial diversity in soils) or involve comparing different situations (in rural development, for example).

Each metaprogramme will therefore have an international dimension which may take various forms: the programme may focus on Europe or establish a network among teams on different continents; it may also contribute to or promote world-scale initiatives. The success of INRA’s metaprogrammes will be gauged in part on how they can be combined with the initiatives of other – in particular foreign – organisations.

The creation of international committees, with a key role the evaluation and selection of actions, in scientific foresight and in the identification of strategic partnerships, will be another international feature of the metaprogrammes.