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CNRS : A Vision for 2020

The main objective of CNRS' new strategic plan is to strengthen France's position in the global research environment of the early 21st century. In this interview, Catherine Bréchignac and Arnold Migus, respectively president and director general of CNRS, tell us about the research organization's future. They believe it will have an open and flexible structure, be a European and global leader, and undergo radical transformation to adapt to a changing world.

brechignac interview

© C. Lebedinsky/CNRS Photothèque


A little over a year after taking office, you decided to equip CNRS with a new long-term strategic plan. In what way is this important for an organization like CNRS?

Catherine Bréchignac: We need to have a vision for the future of science and society. Defining a strategy helps us get a sense of what science will be like by 2020. What type of research will we be doing? With what kind of facilities? And how will CNRS rank in the national, European, and international contexts? Because evidently, research can only be conceived of today if it has an international dimension.


Why choose the year 2020?

CB: Of course, there are areas of science such as particle physics or space exploration where it's possible to make much longer-term plans, but 2020 seemed a good compromise to go beyond the medium term. This means tackling research planned over the next few years. A number of countries have also decided to draw up strategic plans for 2020.


More specifically, how does this plan fit into the new French research environment?

Arnold Migus: As you know, France has equipped itself with new organizational tools for research, and we're going to make the best possible use of them. As for public research, we now have the three components found in every country: research organizations, universities, and funding agencies. The French Research Program Act has given us a number of unifying instruments, such as PRES,1 which ensures collaboration between universities, RtrA,2 that groups research around specific topics or on the basis of geographical proximity, and Competitiveness clusters. The latter are partnerships between laboratories, companies, and regional and local authorities. We will need to strike the right balance between collaborative research carried out  with other institutions at the national or European level, and more competitive research based on calls for projects from research agencies.


You have organized your strategy around six selected topics. What are they and how were they chosen?

AM: Each scientific department identified the subjects which it saw as having the highest priority in the next 15 years. The overlap between these subjects brought to light a number of themes of shared interest. 'The search for our origins' covers basically everything that pertains to the origins of life. And this concerns all CNRS scientific departments. 'Planet Earth, anthropogenic factors and society,' will focus on Earth phenomena–in particular their effect on the climate–but will also study more generally the Earth system as a whole, upon which mankind is having an increasing impact. 'Biological and social complexity' places humans at the center of research into complexity, be it of the brain (where imaging is opening up new research possibilities), of consciousness, or of human societies. The theme 'Information, image, and communication,' goes beyond what–in the technological sense–is known as information and communication science. It includes the human aspect of communication, since after all, humans are both the senders and receivers of information. It is with this understanding that we recently launched the CNRS Institute for Communication Sciences. Another admittedly emergent theme, which concerns all disciplines, is that of 'Nanosciences and nanotechnologies.' This involves manipulating objects whose properties depend on their size, a size that can compare with biocellular objects. Here, there are countless possibilities for breakthroughs, though it will need to be carefully monitored. The last theme is 'Energy,' a vital issue for society. Here again, all disciplines are concerned. For instance, geologists will need to carry out work on fossil fuel resources, engineers on new sources of energy and energy conservation, chemists on more efficient ways of storing energy, and economists on the development of new industries.


This strategic plan also has a very strong international outlook. In what ways would you like to strengthen the international image of CNRS?

CB: CNRS is already a highly-recognized institution worldwide, as proved by the ever-increasing number of young European researchers who want to come and work at CNRS. They now make up nearly 20% of newly-recruited researchers. This shows that we are competitive and an increasingly attractive option for young researchers. CNRS also has a long history of close cooperation with many countries in the world. With offices usually located within our embassies, we have official representation on all continents: North (Washington) and South (Santiago de Chile) America, Africa (Johannesburg), Asia (Beijing, Hanoï, and Tokyo), as well as in Europe (Brussels and Moscow). This has helped us create many partnerships, in the form of joint laboratories and programs, as well as training through research. It is the type of cooperation we wish to further develop in the years to come. We'll be placing special emphasis on Asia–particularly China, India, Vietnam, and South Korea. Latin America is also one of our priorities, especially Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. And of course, we will in no way forget our traditional partners, the US and Japan.


Interview by Fabrice Impériali

Notes :

1. PRES: pôle de recherche et d'enseignement supérieur.
2. RTRA: réseau thématique de recherche avancée.


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