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Substances naturelles en Polynésie française

Jean Guezennec
Christian Moretti
Jean-Christophe Simon

Part one. English Version

Aims and methods of IRD expert group reviews in general

And implementation of the review on “Natural substances in French Polynesia” in particular

Marie-Laure Beauvais

Texte intégral

1This work, the sixth to be published in the IRD’s “Expert Group Review” series, has the same general aims as the earlier ones and has been conducted by the same method, briefly summarised below.

2The IRD (Institut de recherche pour le développement, a State-funded research agency) conducts expert group reviews “to order”, to inform policy decisions and public debate on issues of importance to society. Putting its scientists’ research and knowledge at the disposal of the community is one of the IRD’s missions.

3However, the work of a scientific establishment does not include drawing up action plans for government or local authorities. Their choice of action is eminently political and must take account of data from quite other fields than scientific research. The IRD’s purpose in designing the “expert group review” method is a more modest one: to put together the knowledge available in the literature on a given subject, draw out the implications of that knowledge for a particular case, draw clear conclusions on which there is scientific agreement, identify points that are still controversial and point out any areas where the available information does not provide a basis for drawing practical conclusions.

4There are three key points for conducting a useful, reliable review:

  • Decisions often have to be taken in a far shorter time than thorough research would allow. Citizens need measures to be taken quickly, sometimes as a matter of urgency. An expert group review is designed to report on existing knowledge as found in the international literature; in principle, no new data are collected and no complicated exploitation of data is attempted.

  • The question addressed rarely concerns only one scientific discipline. All facets of the problem have to be elucidated from the most recent literature. The panel of experts therefore has some dozen members from different fields. The overall conclusions are debated and agreed collectively, each person taking full responsibility. The IRD’s Consulting and Industrial Relations Department has the report read by qualified persons outside the panel to make sure it covers the field in full, is clear, and accurately reflects the international literature. The experts on the panel have the final decision as to their conclusions.

  • Decision makers and citizens are rarely familiar with the terminology of the scientific disciplines concerned, but for public debate to take place they must have direct access to the scientists’ reasoning and conclusions. The authors of the report have to present their analyses using specialised terminology in order to ensure that their reasoning is “traceable”, but they must also draw up a simple and fairly concise synopsis of the report for the lay reader.

5These factors determine the schedule set for an expert group review and the form of publication. In particular, they determine the original approach used in the initial and final stages of the review:

  • Even before the panel of experts is formed, the questions to be asked are worked out by common agreement at an initial workshop between scientists and the commissioning institutions (who usually also want to involve stakeholders and partners directly concerned). The parties need to agree on exactly what each one expects. Some questions crucial for decision making are outside the scope of a scientific review and must be excluded. On the other hand, to focus their conclusions, the scientists must be guided by a sound knowledge of the context in which decisions will be taken. They may need to familiarise themselves with the ground facts.

  • After putting together the data and analyses provided by the experts, each in their own field of competence, the panel compares and collates their opinions. Then their conclusions, worked out collectively, must be published in the form of a synopsis accessible to a fairly wide readership. These synopses summarise a huge amount of work that is rarely presented in this form, and their scientific and practical scope often reaches far beyond the region or country directly concerned. This is why they are always published in English as well as French.

6The review on Natural substances in French Polynesia has been conducted according to this method, but has some particular features of its own:

  • To meet their practical requirements, the Polynesian commissioning authorities wanted an assessment of their natural resources that would tell them as quickly and precisely as possible which substances they should encourage investment in. But the scientists’ conclusions could not take account of unpredictable fluctuations in markets where selling points are not always directly linked to the active properties of the substances concerned. The initial request for the review (included as a funding allocation in the development contract between the French government and Polynesia) did not make this distinction clear. To remove the risk of misunderstanding between the commissioning body and the experts, an IRD mission went to Papeete, where the contours of the review were carefully examined and a set of specifications suggested that would incorporate both the requirements and the limitations.

  • For the review to successfully meet such a directly operational purpose, there had to be regular contact between the panel of experts (mostly based in Metropolitan France) and the operators concerned in Polynesia. To organise this, the Polynesian government’s research delegate formed a monitoring committee, composed of representatives of government services and the stakeholders concerned. It was this committee that validated the specifications. During the review work, the committee was kept informed of progress and on several occasions there were video-conferences between Papeete and Paris, when they had useful discussions with the panel chairman and various panel members. The committee was also the first to receive the results of the review.

7At the end of the process, the review answers some of the Polynesian authorities’ legitimate concerns, but not all. Public or private stakeholders wishing to initiate active use of certain natural substances will need to have further studies done for technical and economic purposes – but these studies are outside the scope of a scientific research institute.

8 Any state-of-the-art analysis reviews the situation at a specific time and will sooner or later be outdated. This is particularly true of a study seeking to identify an economic use “potential”. Economic utilisation possibilities depend on factors that can change in many different ways. The relatively slow evolution of economic and legal facts suggests that the review’s conclusions in these fields will remain valid for some time. As to the conclusions on the chemical and pharmaceutical properties of the substances considered, the review gives a very thorough account of the currently available data. Of course new potential will be recognised in future (especially for marine substances, of which only a tiny proportion has so far been studied). However, the scientific procedures for identifying, isolating and analysing new active principles are usually long. All in all, these considerations underscore the experts’ conclusion that ways should be found to monitor research in Polynesia on an ongoing basis.

9As with all publications in this series, the reader will find a synopsis of the expert panel’s conclusions, in French and English, in the printed book; and the nine analytical chapters from which the synopsis is drawn, on the enclosed CD-Rom.

10This review has a further particularity, however, in the set of data sheets on individual natural substances, included in the CD-Rom. They provide hitherto unpublished material – the result of a multidisciplinary synthesis of knowledge about each potentially useful substance the experts identified.

11To conclude, we would like to convey our sincere thanks to all who helped this publication see the light of day. Many thanks to the experts, who had the responsibility of the review and put in a great deal of work under the chairmanship of Christian Moretti (IRD). Special thanks to Céline Bonhomme, who joined the project as an intern from the advanced engineering school Ponts et Chaussées. She played a very active part in the preparatory research and the mission to Polynesia, and did most of the work of writing the specifications and bringing together the panel of experts. Special thanks also to Jacques Iltis, Director of the IRD centre in Papeete. Without his contribution as messenger and intermediary between Paris and Papeete it would all have been far more difficult.

12Our thanks to all those in Polynesia and Paris who made specialist contributions or discussed their experience with panel members, and to the scientists from different institutions who shared their knowledge, their data and their opinions on the first version of the report.

13Solange Lavielle (Professor of Chemistry, Pierre and Marie Curie University -Paris VI) and Michel Trometter (Economist, INRA Grenoble) read the first version of the report from a scientific standpoint; many thanks to both of them for their attentive reading and the acuity and relevance of their observations and suggestions, which the experts took fully into account in producing the definitive version.

14The panel of experts and the Consulting and Industrial Relations Department would like to convey their most sincere thanks to Marianne Berthod, who directed this expert group review with rigor and comprehensiveness.


Consulting and Industrial Relations Department

© IRD Éditions, 2006

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