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Anniversary

CNRS Turns 70

Founded on October 19th, 1939, at the initiative of Jean Perrin, CNRS revolutionized French research. Seventy years later, the organization boasts no fewer than 30,000 staff members and 1100 laboratories.

Before the founding of CNRS in 1939, there was no real national drive for French research,” explains CNRS historian Denis Guthleben, whose book on the subject has just been published.1 “At the time, researchers–then more commonly called 'savants'–were employed by the State as professors in universities or 'grandes écoles,' and their research had to take a back seat to their teaching duties,” he continues. CNRS thus literally revolutionized French research by “inventing” a status for researchers and organizing their work into teams, which were often multidisciplinary.

cnrs turn 70

© CNRS Photothèque/Fonds historique

A laboratory at the Meudon-Bellevue CNRS site in 1959.



The idea of creating such an organization, along with the relentless perseverance to see it through to completion, is attributed to one man: physicist Jean Perrin. When he received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1926 for his work on the structure of matter, Perrin noticed that scientific research in France would have a lot to gain by drawing inspiration from its German neighbors. “In Germany, the principle of funding scientific research within large institutions was introduced in 1911,” highlights Guthleben. At that time, in France, the system was based on prizes and distinctions, and only those who had already made a discovery were rewarded.
In 1927, with financial support from philanthropist Edmond de Rothschild, Jean Perrin first created the Institute of physico-chemical biology in Paris, with chemist André Job and physiologist André Mayer. “This desire to bring together different disciplines clearly marked the beginning of Perrin's project,” says Guthleben. Very quickly, Perrin realized what the same initiative could accomplish at a nationwide level. Having introduced a “petition for French research” that garnered the signatures of over 80 scholars, including 8 Nobel Prize winners, Perrin managed to convince the Minister of education to establish a high council for scientific research in April 1933. This body, which represented all disciplines “that played a role (...) in the progress of Humanity,” was the first building block of the future CNRS. The second, laid in 1935, would be the “Caisse nationale de la recherche scientifique,” a purely financial organization in charge of coordinating the initiatives of the different pre-existing institutions that funded research.
“The following year, Perrin, who had become Deputy State Secretary for research, established a national division for scientific research with the power to set up laboratories,” continues Guthleben. Henceforth, all of the pieces were in place to found CNRS: an assembly for the democratic debate of scientific issues, a funding body, and a government executive arm–but these pieces still needed to be put together. “With war declared on Germany, there was an urgent need to unite the French scientific community. A journalist of the time wrote that the mobilization of French laboratories amounted to the creation of a new regiment,” adds the historian. CNRS was founded on October 19th, 1939. Unfortunately, its researchers had only nine months to contribute to the war effort before France's capitulation.
After the gloomy occupation period, CNRS was reorganized and underwent considerable change, especially in the 1960s. Would Perrin recognize his brainchild today? Evidently, the form and size of CNRS have changed considerably. It has gone from about 1000 people and approximately 40 laboratories centered around Paris and Meudon in 1945 to about 30,000 people and 1100 laboratories throughout France in 2009. “But it has maintained its objective to embrace all sciences by stimulating advanced research, and to preserve researchers' freedom to explore all scientific avenues,” says Guthleben. “For 70 years, CNRS has never stopped adjusting to the surrounding context and expectations. Its achievements, far-reaching scientific discoveries, and significant contributions to overall growth and development during this period have been absolutely enormous.”

Charline Zeitoun

Notes :

1. Denis Guthleben, Histoire du CNRS de 1939 à nos jours (Paris: Armand Colin, 2009).

Contacts :

Denis Guthleben,
Comité pour l'histoire du CNRS, Paris.
denis.guthleben@cnrs-dir.fr


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