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The Beginning of International Collaboration at the CNRS

International scientific collaboration is not some novel idea dating from the 1960's. Research is nearly impossible without collaboration with colleagues in other countries. This was already true when the intellectual lights of the 16th and 17th centuries exchanged information and knowledge, and the scientific revolution was born.

The 19th century saw the first international scientific conferences organized – for economists in 1848 (Brussels), for statistics in 1853 (Brussels), and chemistry in 1860 (Karlsruhe) - and these events served to institutionalise burgeoning scientific exchange. A new stage in the internationalisation of science was reached later in the 19th century with the creation of the first international research centers such as the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Paris in 1875, or the Zoological Research Station of Naples in 1870.

Since that time, the number of scientific associations and periodic international meetings has multiplied at a considerable rate. The number of international research organisations on the other hand remains modest due to the longterm commitment required of States. Standouts in this category are those created after the Second World War such as CERN (European Center for Nuclear Research), Euratom (European Community of Atomic Energy) or ESA (European Space Agency). These are heavyweight organizations in the sense that they are founded by international treaty and their scientific staff most often have the status of international public servants.

In this context the CNRS could well have left international collaboration up to these institutions and/or to the serendipity of occasional contacts among individual scientists and laboratories in their subfields. Such an approach would have amounted to abandoning any idea of an overarching policy while limiting international scientific exchange to isolated and fortuitous collaboration. The Director General of the CNRS from 1962-1968, Pierre Jacquinot, thought differently and committed the CNRS actively to developing international collaboration. The latter became a pillar of his development strategy for the CNRS.

Subsequently Jean Cantacuzène, at the time associate director of the Chemistry Laboratory of the Ecole Normale Supérieure, established the first Office of International Relations at the CNRS, which was then headed up by Jacqueline Mirabel from 1964 to 1983. It was at this time also that the first public relations department was set up at the CNRS.

The first step for the new office was establishing some idea of the level of international activity theretofore, a task made easier by the fact that at the time all mission authorisations had to be signed in Paris. This inventory revealed a variety of types of exchange, and the decision was made to encompass this variety and facilitate further exchange among scientists and laboratories by establishing cooperative framework agreements with partners abroad.

Next the objective was to encourage and expand international collaboration. The first agreement was signed with Poland's Academy of Science, on the occasion of a trip by the CNRS' Director General. This was a daring move to the extent that while Polish scientists were clamoring for French collaborators the reverse could hardly be said to be true. The agreement itself was quite simple, consisting mainly of an exchange of letters of intent. An even simpler arrangement was signed with the Royal Society; an exchange of two letters of four lines each sealed the collaborative framework for more than twenty years. A systematic effort to uncover potential partners followed these early initiatives, but in some cases the road was long, such as in the case of West Germany where there had been virtually no official contact between the CNRS and any German research organisations previously.

The proliferation of exchange agreements led the CNRS to establish a standard framework agreement for international exchange. In this way it became standard procedure for the home country to pay travel expenses for a scientist on mission while the host country furnished the visitor a stipend. Within the CNRS, initial requests for exchange emanated from the individual scientist, and propositions were evaluated by an ad hoc committee who based their decisions on the priorities of the moment as well as the merits of the request. Motivations varied, from researchers seeking to go abroad to learn a new technique to about-to-be directors of laboratories wishing to learn more about laboratory organisation in another country. The development policy of the CNRS defined the priorities for exchange, and missions abroad were for some posts an unspoken or de facto requirement. Directors responsible for scientific decisions were also included in the decision-making for international collaboration.

A recurrent problem in the early days of formalized exchange was the high number of scientists seeking a training sojourn at a large-scale research facility, which led the CNRS in the 1970's to establish joint laboratories with foreign research organisations. International joint laboratories were almost exclusively created in connection with a large facility such as the Laue Langevin Institute or the Research Insititute for Millimetric Astronomy. The legal structure usually adopted for such laboratories is that of a civil partnership under French law. While it has turned out to be relatively easy to settle matters of cost-sharing for constructing and operating these facilities, the question of researchers' salaries has proved thornier. And one problem has not been discussed at all: what to do in case the laboratory closes down. Assuming, that is, that this type of structure can be dissolved at all.

More recently the notion of international exchange has been profoundly affected by the existence of the European Commission's Framework Programme for Research and Development (FPRD), which poses certain questions for CNRS policy makers. Since submission procedures are complex and present difficulties for small laboratories wishing to participate in FP programs, will research organizations be increasingly dependent on their own European networks? What balance can be struck between European-level programs and initiatives of organisations like the CNRS? This need for articulation is a major issue for the CNRS as European integration and a European research area become top priorities.

We wish greatly to thank Ms. Mirabel for her assistance in the preparation of this article.



à lire

La Revue pour l'histoire du CNRS. n°3, novembre 2000, 97 p. - 15,24 €.


Girolamo Ramunni
Comité pour l'histoire du CNRS
Université Lyon II, Institut des sciences de l'homme

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