Sixty years of basic research

CNRS was created on October 19, 1939, in the early days of World War II, by decree of President Albert Lebrun. The aim was to merge all the non-specialized state organizations involved in basic and applied research into a single institution in order to coordinate research at the national level. CNRS was the brainchild of a handful of scientists, and especially of Jean Perrin, who was awarded the Nobel Physics Prize for 1926. Indeed, through his efforts, the Caisse nationale de la recherche scientifique merged with the Office national des recherches scientifiques in 1938. This organization, then named the "Centre national de la recherche scientifique appliquée", became the "Centre national de la recherche scientifique", or CNRS, in 1939.
 The postwar boom
During the war, CNRS devoted most of its energy to applied research: military research until the armistice in 1940, and economic research until 1944. The laboratories financed by CNRS during the war worked on nuclear research, radio wave detection, or food substitutes. Only after 1945 did CNRS begin to flourish in the field of basic research. Applied research was taken over by other organizations created specifically for that purpose: ORSTOM (French Institute of Scientific Research for Development and Cooperation), specialized in overseas research, the CNET (National Telecommunications Center) and the CEA (Atomic Energy Commission).
 A turning point: the creation of joint laboratories
In 1966, CNRS underwent far-reaching structural transformations with the creation of joint research units. These are university laboratories which are joined by contract to CNRS. They receive financial support from CNRS and are staffed by both university and CNRS researchers. Through these joint research units, CNRS is able to cover all scientific disciplines and support all the branches of French research. During the following years, two federative institutes were created: the National Astronomy and Geophysics Institute (1967), which later became the National Institute of Earth Sciences and Astronomy (INSU) and the National Institute of Nuclear and Particle Physics (1971) (IN2P3). These two institutes coordinate CNRS and academic research thanks to scientific programs and large-scale facilities, which they both set up and manage: examples are Themis, the Franco-Italian telescope in the Canary Islands (INSU), or the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble (IN2P3).
 Answering society's questions
In the 1970s, CNRS renewed its interest in applied research with the creation of the department of engineering sciences. The department aims to develop basic research in accordance with industrial needs. During the 80s, many scientific discoveries were made in this respect, often combining several scientific disciplines. As a result, a policy of interdisciplinary action was launched. The interdisicplinary programs and actions bring together researchers from different disciplines to work on a given theme, with a view to providing answers to society's questions on science: health care, energy, the environment are only a few examples of the issues addressed. At the same time, CNRS works in collaboration with other research organizations such as INSERM (National Health and Medical Research Institute), or, more recently, with industrial firms, through the creation of "mixed units", jointly managed by CNRS and a private or public company. By developing partnerships and contributing to a national effort to optimize the funds granted by the state to scientific research, CNRS was the first among state research organizations to begin a "contractualization" process in 1990. According to this contract system, CNRS, any willing higher education establishment and the Ministry of Research can sign a partnership contract for a duration of four years. The contract specifies the nature of the scientific program, the budget allocated and the organizational framework.
 Talented researchers
A great many famous researchers have worked, at one moment or another in their careers, in CNRS-supported laboratories.

Several among them earned the Nobel Prize:

  • Jean Perrin, founder of CNRS, earned the Nobel Physics Prize in 1926,
  • Frédéric Joliot-Curie, the first postwar CNRS director-general was awarded the Nobel Chemistry Prize in 1935.
    More recently, the Nobel Prize was awarded to the following CNRS researchers:

    Physics: Alfred Kasler (1966), Louis Néel (1970), Pierre-Gilles de Gennes (1991), Georges Charpak (1992) and Claude Cohen-Tannoudji (1997)
    Chemistry: Jean-Marie Lehn (1987),
    Biology and medecine: the disciples of Pasteur André Lwoff, Jacques Monod and François Jacob (1965), Jean Dausset (1980),
    Economics: Maurice Allais (1988).

    In mathematics, a science for which there is no Nobel Prize, several CNRS researchers were awarded the Fields medal, the highest distinction for mathematicians. These are Jean-Pierre Serre, René Thom, Alexandre Grothendieck, Alain Connes, Laurent Schwarz and Laurent Lafforgue. Pierre-Louis Lions and Jean-Christophe Yoccoz, who received the Fields medal in 1994, both work in joint CNRS research units.

    Since 1954, the CNRS gold, silver and bronze medals have been awarded each year to world-famous French scientists and promising young researchers. The most recent gold medal winners are: Pierre Bourdieu, sociologist, for 1993, Claude Allègre, earth physicist, for 1994, Claude Hagège, linguist, for 1995, Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, physicist, for 1996, Jean Rouxel, chemist, for 1997 and Pierre Potier, for 1998, Jean-Claude Risset for 1999, Michel Lazdunski for 2000, Maurice Godelier for 2001, Claude Lorius and Jean Jouzel for 2002, Albert Fert for 2003 and Alain Connes for 2004.

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