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Humanities and social sciences

CNRS Boosts its International Research

The international policy of the Humanities and Social Sciences Department (Sciences humaines et sociales, SHS) at CNRS is based on a network of French Research Institutes Abroad (Instituts français de recherche à l'étranger, IFRE) in over 30 cities throughout the world. Marie-Françoise Courel, director of the SHS department at CNRS, explains international policy in these disciplines.

The international dimension of research is an everyday reality at CNRS. But more specifically, what form does this take in the SHS department?
Marie-Françoise Courel: To a large extent, it is maintained through the numerous contacts that are established during conferences and when French postdoctoral researchers visit laboratories abroad, or when CNRS labs host foreign researchers. This kind of scientific cooperation is becoming increasingly systematized. For instance, since 2006, we have tripled the number of International Programs for Scientific Cooperation (PICS). We have also doubled the number of European and international research networks (GDRE/GDRI) and associated laboratories (LEA/LIA).1
International Joint Units (UMI)2 are also currently being developed. One of them brings together several CNRS labs in France and African research centers in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), Dakar (Senegal), and Bamako (Mali). It will launch a multidisciplinary program aimed at promoting research on the links between the environment, health, and society. Another UMI currently in the works with the University of Arizona (US) will investigate the issue of water in arid areas from an economic, anthropological, and geographical standpoint.
Finally, institutes of the Ministry of Higher Education and Research, and French research centers abroad, in which our department takes an active part, play a fundamental role in structuring research both in Europe and in the rest of the world.

In what way?
M-FC: They are outstanding places for exchanges! Although they were originally set up to support highly prestigious archaeological missions (Delphi, Delos, Persepolis, Cairo, Luxor, Jerusalem, etc.), they have gradually opened up to other disciplinary realms.

Specifically, what is their role?
M-FC: First of all, they are the interface between CNRS, French higher education and research institutions, and our foreign partners. But they also act as training centers for scientists from France and other countries. The events and conferences organized there make them places where people meet and exchange information, which then often leads on to collaborations.

What are the main disciplines represented?
M-FC: The first research institutes were mainly devoted to archaeological and historical research. From the 1960s onward, their role has gradually widened to include all fields of the humanities and social sciences. Today, the main emphasis is often on contemporary societies. Since 2007, the French centers abroad belonging to CNRS and the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs (MAEE) have been systematically reorganized, and they will now operate on the basis of programs lasting from two to four years which will be assessed at regular intervals.

What difference has such a program-based approach made?
M-FC: It has enabled us to break with the “nomadic” habits of some French researchers, who moved from center to center and only published in the internal journals of their host institution. As of today, the CNRS/MAEE French institutes abroad host a researcher or a PhD student for a maximum of two to three years, only if their subject of research falls within the program approved by both partners. The aim is for the researcher to subsequently be able to return to his or her scientific community in France. For the researcher, advantages are threefold: they can put the material that they have amassed into perspective; give their ideas time to gestate before being published in the best journals;
and share their knowledge with scientists who have remained in France. These centers are ready to take on the major sci entific challenges of tomorrow.

Interview by Emmanuel Thévenon
French Schools, Institutes, and Centers Abroad
The network of French research centers abroad is a specific feature of the SHS department. The centers are variously distributed throughout the world. Since the period between the two World Wars, the network is firmly established in the Middle East and Central Asia, with a total of no fewer than nine centers (Egypt, Lebanon-Syria-Jordan, Turkey, Iran, Uzbekistan, and Yemen). After 1948, a center was founded in Israel. There are also centers in sub-Sahelian Africa (Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa), in Southeast Asia (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, and two centers in India), and in Europe (UK, Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic, and the Russian Federation). The Americas are represented by two centers in Mexico and Peru, while an International Joint Unit (UMI) bringing together CNRS and the University of Arizona will soon open in the US. UMIFRE,1 created in April 2007, are the restructured centers run jointly by CNRS and the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs.
1. Unités mixtes d’instituts français de recherche à l’étranger.
Contact : Christophe Goddard,

Notes :

1. Laboratories “without walls” which in principle bring together two labs or teams from different countries.
2. Research structures which associate bodies from various countries for a duration of four years.

Contacts :

Marie-Françoise Courel
Département SHS du CNRS, Paris.


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