Research Evaluation: an Expertise Mission at HCERES, Bordeaux

Elke Schäffner spend three days in Bordeaux at the “Haut conseil de l’évaluation de la recherche et de l’enseignement supérieur” (HCERES) to help evaluate the Bordeaux Research Center for Population Health. Feedback. 

At the end of January this year, I spent three days in Bordeaux. I felt honored to be invited by the French “Haut conseil de l’evaluation de la recherche et de l’enseignement supérieur” (HCERES), in English the “High Counsil for Evaluation of Research and Higher Education” to help evaluate the Bordeaux Research Center for Population Health. I accepted the invitation eager to learn more about the French research system and this well known Public Health Center in Bordeaux.

HCERES is a French independent administrative agency responsible for the evaluation process of universities and research institutions in France. Apart from evaluating research units, degree programs and curricula, HCERES can also review evaluation processes. HCERES evaluations, I was told, rely on the participation of some 5,000 people every year – experts, scientific delegates and administrative staff. Why such an enormous number, I was wondering.

To evaluate the Bordeaux Research Center for Population Health HCERES assembled a jury of 14 members, so called “experts in the fields” of epidemiology, public health, biostatistics and clinical research. I found myself among a European group of colleagues from France, Belgium, the Netherlands, England, Sweden, Italy, Austria and Germany. We were flown in and all accommodated in the same hotel and we shared breakfast and dinner at a little restaurant. For all of you who associate Bordeaux with opulent meals that come with plenty of “Grand Cru”: HCERES did NOT pay for the wine – probably to avoid every semblance of corruption!

Over the course of almost three full days, jury members had to follow an intense and demanding program. The research center itself comprises 250 staff members with a quarter being researchers and the rest being technical or administrative staff. These 60 researchers formed eleven research teams that work on different topics. The research topics presently covered by the Research Center include mainly biostatistics, aging, epidemiology of neurological diseases, HIV infection and other infectious diseases, cancer, nutrition, and prevention of traumatises. In preparation of the meeting, jury members were assigned to at least two teams to write a pre-review based on the teams’ written reports sent to us beforehand. During the site-visit every team had one full hour to present itself: 30 minutes for a presentation basically covering their research agenda, team structure and vision and 30 minutes for questions and answers. It is important to note that questions from the jury did not only concern the content of the research projects but also areas such as team building, their views and future perspectives, joint initiatives, existing or newly formed cooperations, and innovative ideas.

Apart from individual team presentations, there was the opportunity to talk to a large group of students: PhD-students, postdocs and master students. I was thinking back about the time I was a student myself and how honoured I would have felt if an external jury had asked me if I felt well supervised, if there was a chance for me to achieve first authorships and if I was allowed to travel to research conferences and if yes, if someone payed for my travel costs.

A guided tour around the research building gave us an idea of workspace and room capacity.

On the last morning the jury also had the chance to talk to the president of the Bordeaux University as well as other faculty members and a representative from the “Institute nationale de la santé et de la recherche médicale (INSERM).

Research Centers in France are evaluated every five years – an enormous effort which explains the impressive number of 5,000 people involved at HCERES. Apart from a trimmed-down version of such an evaluation, which takes place for “Sonderforschungsbereiche“ (SFB; Collaborative Research Centre), this kind of regular evaluation does not exist in Germany.

I flew home as I had flown in – naturally via Paris – and thought, while waiting at Charles de Gaulle, that visiting a foreign research center widens your horizon and might serve as an impulse for your work at home. As neighbours we should keep visiting – as jury members or not – to learn more about each other’s system!

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