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The CNRS : A Major Player in Building the European Research Area !

Director of the Marseille-Provence Astronomical Observatory, Michel Blanc also heads a CNRS Strategic Reflection Group, "Building a European Research Area", composed of ten or so leading French scientists who meet monthly to discuss the role of the CNRS in this endeavor. The organisation brings to the European effort its experience as a research actor in a wide set of knowledge fields, with strong background in knowledge production, scientific partnerships, research evaluation, and future planning for research.

How did the Strategic Reflection Groups (GRS) come to be created?
Michel Blanc: Strategic Reflection Groups were initiated during 2001 to provide input to the process of concertation ongoing at that time and leading up to the Plan for the CNRS published in February of 2002. The president of the CNRS, Gérard Mégie, and the then General Director, Geneviève Berger, subsequently decided to maintain the GRS that had been working on the European Research Area (ERA), placing it under the responsibility of the strategic planning arm of the CNRS, the Mission for Strategy Development.  The task of this Mission is to sponsor studies leading to the definition of a strategic orientation for the CNRS. In this context the GRS is not a policy body but rather a place of free reflection and strategic counsel.

The European Research Area is a recent idea. How did it come about?
M.B. For a long time public research policy in Europe was considered as the exclusive domain of States. The establishment of very large-scale research facilities like CERN (European Center for Nuclear Research)1 or the ESO (European Southern Observatory)2 forced a change of thinking on this issue. Given the size of the necessary investments, decisions had to be taken at a European level.
In addition, The EU created the Framework Programmes for Research and Development (FPRD) whose objective is to fund and promote the development of internationally competitive new technologies (biotechnologies, information and communication technologies).
The European Research Commissioner, Philippe Busquin, feels this is not enough. A newer and further objective is to integrate better the various national research policies. Instead of the current amalgam of fifteen national policy programs plus European policy in the form of the FPRD, the EU, its member states, and other research actors will soon or later need to generate a true synergy among these policies. When this occurs we have a European Research Area.

Where does the CNRS find its place in all this?
M.B. The CNRS has long experience developing tools and methods which could usefully be transposed to the European level. For example, when it comes to future research planning, the CNRS has a lot of experience anticipating the next important scientific questions to emerge and envisioning how to respond by mobilising current research teams, facilities, and programs, or even by adapting research structures. This process must be spearheaded by the scientific community itself.
At the same time it is vital for the CNRS itself to adapt its planning mechanisms to the European context in order to find national and international partners for its larger projects, which might be laboratories large enough to achieve critical mass in a certain field, large-scale facilities, networks of excellence, etc.
Our GRS feels that the CNRS ought to become one of the main supporters of this sort of reflection in Europe for the years to come.

Research evaluation is another one of its strengths that the CNRS should retool for a European perspective.
Any research activity undertaken jointly with other European partners and that does not include co-evaluation of objectives and results is doomed to failure. Means of evaluation must be defined and put into place. Several types of evaluation can be found in Europe, and peer review, as practiced by the National Scientific Research Committee of the CNRS, is one of our organisation's points of excellence. This GRS is currently studying how the evaluation mechanisms of the CNRS can strengthen its European policy.
Is the CNRS turning also towards France's administrative regions as it develops its European program?
Regional partners are indeed more and more visible in the research landscape, due not only to their funding role but also to their efforts at elaborating a research policy in conjunction with national research organisations, firms, educational institutions, and with the State itself. Research laboratories have become crossroads where one is likely to find a variety of actors from regional or departmental administrative bodies to national organisations, the State, universities, and the private sector. If these various forces can converge on a common and coherent research strategy, then regional centers will become the main points for the emergence of a European research policy. The regions are already striving for European visibility in what they do. The CNRS' best role will be as mediator between regional and European levels of policy making, well-placed to coordinate local, national and European actions. The regions are the foundation on which a European Research Area can and must be built.

1/ View web site See the article on CERN in this issue.
2/ View web site See the article on the ESA and the ES0 in this issue.




Michel Blanc
Observatoire astronomique Marseille Provence

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