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The science of good relationships


© J.-C. Cuillandre (CFHT)

The Mauna Kea observatories on the island of Hawaii (part of the CFHT project)


The working relationship between French CNRS researchers and their counterparts in the US is both simple and complex. It is simple in that it is the result of researchers and laboratories from both sides of the Atlantic wanting to work together. What makes it complex is that there is no single body that acts as an American equivalent to CNRS. Instead, the country's public research system operates through the cooperative efforts of more than 20 federal departments and agencies, as well as through Congress and the President via various committees. The most financed agencies are the National Institutes of Health (NIH, $27.9 billion), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA, $11.3 billion), the National Science Foundation (NSF, $4.2 billion), the Department of Energy (DOE, $8.9 billion) and the Department of Defense (DOD, $1.08 billion). The country's research is very decentralized and benefits from massive financial support, with the majority of the budgetary increases allocated to Research and Development (R&D) going to defense programs: $131.9 billion was allocated to R&D in 2005, with 69.9 going to defense and 1.2 to national security. To get an idea of the magnitude of US research budgets, one simply needs to look at the NIH, part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS); its budget is ten times that of CNRS. This shows why the US has a very limited need for setting up institutions and programs in partnership with other countries. But despite these factors, there has been a fruitful history of cooperation between the two countries (the partnership between CNRS and the NSF goes back to 1970), and there are definitely opportunities for plenty more.


“When dealing with US research agencies, you have to start from the premise that the country doesn't actually 'need' to collaborate with foreign laboratories or research entities,” explains Dr. Patrick Bernier, the Director of the CNRS Office in Washington. “Once you've accepted this fact, cooperation is possible. Of course, there are major international scientific programs–in the fields of nuclear energy, particle physics or astrophysics–that can bring together researchers from up to ten countries. And there are particular cases in which French researchers are needed for their expertise.” French scientists actively participate in international projects such as the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) in Hawaii, or the BaBar collaboration at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.1 And these collaborative efforts bear their results: the US Patent Office (PTO) granted 3380 patents of French origin–linked to fundamental research, particularly in the area of life sciences–in 2004. 

While there are relatively few laboratories or research institutes set up on US soil in collaboration with a foreign research body, there are numerous collaborations between laboratories and French researchers who go to the US for short missions (crossing the Atlantic for conferences, visits, exchanges, or collaborative projects). In 2004, these missions involved 4300 French researchers, about 10% of the total number of foreign researchers in the US (40,700). The most popular regions for such initiatives are California, the East Coast corridor (from Virginia to Massachusetts), Texas, Florida, and the greater Chicago area. 


Though the US and Canada remain preferred destinations for French post-doctorate researchers wishing to leave France, there are seasonal variations linked to world events. “Over the past few years, the numbers of French researchers working in the US has remained fairly stable,” notes Bernier. “However, we've noticed a slight drop in the number of French post-doctorates wanting to go to the US between 2001 and 2003 due to difficult visa procedures after 9/11.” 

Though a lot of collaborations with CNRS researchers are done on a laboratory-to-laboratory basis, there are attempts at structuring these relationships. The CNRS is currently involved in 35 three-year International Programs for Scientific Cooperation (PICS) in the US. And of these, 10 have California-based partners. The CNRS also has an International Joint Unit (UMI) on each American coast. These units, staffed jointly by personnel from CNRS and from the host country–researchers, engineers and technicians–are part of a new operational structure for research set up in 2002. Each UMI is headed by a laboratory director named by CNRS in conjunction with the given partner institution. In New Jersey, the Cranbury-based UMI Rhodia-Princeton was set up in 2001 with Princeton University and Rhodia Enterprises; its researchers focus on polymers, complex fluids and surface-active agents. On the West Coast, still a favorite destination for French researchers, the UMI Riverside was set up the same year with the University of California-Riverside; its research areas are organic, inorganic, and organometallic chemistries.



© Caltech

Caltech's International Associated Laboratory, a fruitful collaboration.


As well as these institutions, other kinds of collaboration thrive. The International Associated Laboratory (LIA) at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) specializes in Materials for Electrochemical Energetics (LIA-EM2). There are also CNRS agreements with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne (UIUC), with Penn State University and between the CNRS-IN2P32 and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC). Franco-American cooperation can result in new research units on both sides of the Atlantic. Most recently, an International Joint Unit created by CNRS and the Georgia Institute of Technology has led to the establishment of the UMI Georgia Tech-CNRS Telecom lab in the French city of Metz. This is a first in France. The aim is to achieve major breakthroughs in the fields of telecommunications and nanotechnologies, but also to facilitate the recruiting of researchers and technical personnel. Bernier points out that while “there is potential for the creation of this kind of Franco-American establishment in France, the US continues to thrive with opportunities for French researchers and international cooperation.” It would seem that the secret to a continued “entente cordiale” between the two countries' research bodies is this realistic approach to the differences that exist between the two.


Laurence Remila



in figures

> $132.3 billion: proposed R&D Budget for 2006.

> 2 International Joint Units in the US (UMI Rhodia Princeton, UMI Riverside).

> 1 International Joint Unit in France (CNRS-Georgia Tech-Télécom).

> 1 International Associated Laboratory (Caltech, California).

> 35 PICS (International Programs for Scientific Cooperation) are currently proceeding in collaboration with CNRS.

> 3380 patents of French origin were granted by the US patent office in 2004.

> 4300 CNRS-related researchers visited the US in 2004.

> More than half of French post-doctorates in the US are in lifesciences.







The CNRS Office in Washington DC is currently headed by Dr. Patrick Bernier. Its missions include interactions with American and Canadian scientific institutions to help increase and strengthen cooperation, a scientific watch to produce new interactions and a follow up on existing collaborations. It also helps CNRS researchers wishing to come on short missions to the US. The DC Office works closely with the scientific services of the French Embassy and carries out an ongoing census of Franco-American collaboration which has shown that over half of all French scientists based in the US work in the area of life sciences. Since 2004, the Office also represents CNRS in Canada. In January 2006, the CNRS Office, in partnership with the Inserm Office in DC, has started sending out a weekly newsletter, "Le Fil de Marianne", aimed at informing French scientists currently working in the US and Canada of employment opportunities in France and of current French research news.


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Notes :

1. To find out more about BaBar: View web site
2. Institut National de Physique nucléaire et de physique des particules (National institute for nuclear and particle physics).

Contacts :

> Claire Giraud
Deputy Director for the Americas.
> Patrick Bernier
Director of CNRS Office for the USA and Canada in Washington, DC.


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