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Thierry Caquet, an insatiable curiosity about nature

Currently INRA’s Scientific Director for the Environment, Thierry Caquet’s keen interest in the diversity of life sciences goes way back. Whether he focuses on freshwater ecology, like at the start of his career, or more broadly the environment, he is constantly pushing the boundaries of his knowledge and skills, and making meaningful contributions to the Institute’s overall strategy.  

Thierry CAQUET, INRA's Scientific Director for the Environment. © INRA, MAITRE Christophe
By Catherine Foucaud-Scheunemann, translated by Inge Laino
Updated on 04/19/2019
Published on 04/03/2019

Scientist, technician, intellectual... curiosity has been the common denominator throughout Thierry Caquet’s life since childhood. His field of predilection? Life sciences. His sources of inspiration? The books he has always collected and held dear, his environment which never ceases to amaze him, and the colleagues he crosses paths with from time to time, as well as those he works with day in and day out, taking great pleasure in sharing his passion.  

This is the common thread he continues to weave into the fabric of INRA.  

Fascinated by the wonderful world of life sciences

From the start of his university studies, Thierry was smitten with ecology, and especially freshwater environments. The scientific literature he encountered and passionate teachers and researchers he had the fortune of meeting had a greater influence on him than the pond in the family garden! He started collecting degrees, culminating in a doctoral degree in general Ecology. At the time, ecotoxicology was coming to the fore, while questions about the use and impact of pesticides were starting to pop up in the public discourse. Over the course of his thesis, already far-removed from laboratory research on the relationship between dose and response, he started evaluating the merit of using mesocosms, that is, experimental ecosystems that he created and organised himself to study the consequences of the accidental presence of insecticides used to protect crops in still water ecosystems. Natural pools, ponds, marshes and other so-called “lentic”, or still water, environments, abound in the agricultural landscape. And they are precious havens for biodiversity.

True to his taste for sharing knowledge, Thierry thought he would become a science teacher when he was in high school. But in the end, his teaching career would kick off at university level. He has fond memories of this time, thanks especially to many in-field internships in Brittany, which would soon become his home. Ten years later, a little frustrated at not being able to teach and conduct research in equal measure, he joined INRA for a first 2-year immersive experience in Rennes. Enthusiastic about new activities and a new environment, Thierry dove right into a daily routine that mixed freshwater ecology, ecotoxicology and mesocosms.

The dawn of the new millennium was the cue for Thierry to turn the page once and for all on his university career and join INRA. He was recruited in 2001 as head of research in what is today the Ecology and Ecosystem Health research unit (INRA, AgroCampusOuest). While he is still interested in the effects of pesticides on different levels of biological organisation (from individuals to communities), he is gradually turning his attention to one thing: communities of invertebrates. He combines analysis of the diversity of species with approaches to the underlying processes of ecosystems, and is slowly turning away from the mesocosms of his early career to work more directly in the natural environment.  

This was also the time for Thierry to consolidate his skills and share his expertise. A member of different scientific boards, committees, working groups and other organisations even before joining INRA, he eventually got involved in several of INRA’s public partnering bodies to examine issues that range from knowledge of biodiversity to plant health products, notably linked to research programmes of the Ministry of Ecology or those of the Ecophyto plan piloted by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food. That is how he discovered what it means to span different disciplines, finding his place in communities which were until then less familiar to him, such as agronomic sciences. In 2005, Thierry contributed to the collective scientific expert report Pesticides, agriculture and the environment. Carried out by INRA and Cemagref (today IRSTEA - the national Institute of research in science and technology for the environment and agriculture) at the request of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fishing and the Ministry of Ecology and Sustainable Development, the report made a unique mark on how INRA approaches the issue of crop protection.

Always learning, always discovering something new

Years passed, and Thierry became a research director at INRA. Then, the head of his division, Jean-Marc Guehl, asked him to be the Forest, Grassland and Freshwater Ecology division’s deputy head. This was Thierry’s chance to get involved in the management side of a large community and gain an insider’s view of how research is programmed and managed. After visiting many research units and participating in open competitions to recruit staff, he reaped the fruits of working with passionate colleagues. In fact, it often left him with the impression of having gone back to school, be it for evolutionary biology, ecophysiology, or forest sciences!

Serving the broader scientific community

In 2013, Thierry took the reins of the Forest, Grassland and Freshwater Ecology division, fully aware of INRA’s display of trust in asking him to step up to the job. He wholeheartedly embraced the task of scientific steering as head of the division, pleading for a collegiate governance that reflects a value he holds dear: trust. With the support of his colleagues, deputy division heads as well as administrative teams in the Champenoux forest, it was an intense period, full of challenges and expanded responsibilities. The following year, Thierry found himself at the helm of INRA’s Metaprogramme ACCAF - Adaptation of agriculture and forests to climate change. It was yet another opportunity to get interested in something new while broadening horizons in a context of climate change and mounting global stakes.

Time flies!

The years flew by. There was precious little time anymore, for this aviation history buff, to hop on a lightweight aircraft and take off!

Thierry became INRA’s Scientific Director for the Environment in 2017. This came with a slew of change: in the public he had to deal with, in the scope of things, and responsibility load toward the Institute. Well aware of all this, Thierry felt like he was making a useful contribution, helping define and implement INRA’s strategy, especially when it came to the Institute’s Management Board. While he feels he was able to take advantage of opportunities that came knocking or that he actively sought out, he also remembers the people who crossed his path or walk with him now. “Wonderful encounters”, he fondly calls them.

There is no place for nostalgia when he ponders the near-20 years of his career spent in team projects in his field of expertise in support of public policy-making in the service of the environment. On the contrary, he is convinced that the only way to look is forward, for there remains much to do.

Mini-CV

55 years old

  • Background

Since 2017      INRA’s Scientific Director for the Environment
2014-2017       Director of INRA’s Metaprogramme Adaptation of agriculture and forests to climate change
2013-2017       Head of INRA’s Forest, Grassland and Freshwater Ecology division (EFPA)
2008-2013       Deputy head EFPA
Since 2007       Research Director - INRA
2001                Research Scientist - INRA
1994-2000       Senior lecturer – Paris-Sud University
1990                Temporary attaché for teaching and research – Paris-Sud University

  • Education

2011      School of agricultural management and research
2000      Accredited to supervise research –Paris-Sud University
1990      Doctorate in general Ecology – Paris-Sud University
1986      Masters in general Ecology, Minor in the Ecology of freshwater communities – ENS, INA-PG, Paris-Sud University
1985      Masters in Biology of  organisms and populations – Paris-Sud University
1984      Undergraduate degree in Biology of  organisms – Paris-Sud University
1983      DEUG B, a 2-year university general studies diploma, in Earth and Life Sciences – Paris-Sud University

Expertise that has withstood the test of time

The long list of INRA partners and research programmes that Thierry has been involved with is far from random. They all share three common denominators: biodiversity, environment and pesticides. He is a member of the following organisations:

Scientific Advisor for the French national agency for biodiversity - AFB (since 2017); French Environment and Energy Management Agency - Ademe (since 2017); French national office for water and aquatic environments - Onema (2008-2016).
Scientific steering committee for the French national alliance for research on the environment - AllEnvi (since 2017).
Scientific and technical advisor for the French national institute of geographic and forest information - IGN (since 2017).
Board of Advisors for the Foundation for research on biodiversity – FRB (since 2017).
Phyto-pharmacovigilance working group for the French Agency for Food, Environment and Occupational Health & Safety - Anses (2016-2018).
Scientific and Technical Advisory Board of the French Association for the technical coordination of agriculture - ACTA (since 2013).
Special Scientific Commission of the Management of  chronic risk for the French National Institute for Industrial Environment and Risks - Ineris (2012-2018).
Thematic group Environmental, natural and ecotoxic risks - AllEnvi (since 2010).
Inter-Alliance group Toxicology and ecotoxicology - AllEnvi-Aviesan (since 2010).

Research/Innovation scientific steering committee of the Ecophyto II plan – Ministry of Agriculture and Food (2016-2019).
Expert group for research on Theme 3 of the Ecophyto plan - Ministry of Agriculture and Food  (2010-2015).
Scientific advisor for the French national programme for research on endocrine disruptors – Ministry of Ecology (since 2004); for the Pesticide evaluation and reduction of risks linked to pesticide use programme - Ministry of Ecology (1999-2015); for the French national Ecotoxicology programme - Ministry of Ecology (2002-2008); for the Thematic action plan Functioning and dynamic of the continental biosphere: processes, exchange of material and energy of the national programme Continental ecosphere: processes and modelling – French national research agency (ANR) (2003-2005).
Steering committee for Calls to projects for Contaminants, environment and health and safety - ANR (2010-2013).
Joint committee for Franco-Tunisian university cooperation (2001-2005).