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Interview with Alain Fuchs
You have been President of the CNRS for more than 7 years. How would you describe the organization’s evolution?
The CNRS has continually evolved since its inception in 1939. The organization in the 21st century is not what it was in the post-war years or in the 1970s. It is a leading institution, which has successfully adapted to the national, European and global contexts.
Associated laboratories, followed by the creation of joint research units or the management of large-scale research infrastructures are some of the milestones that have made a difference. A few of these changes have caused tension. It is no secret that there have been clashes between CNRS managers and their ministers in the past. But it’s water under the bridge and our relationship is now peaceful.
In recent years, closer collaboration with universities was the landmark of my time as President. This policy has helped soothe relations in the higher education and research sphere, without the CNRS losing its soul in the process.
What is the position of the CNRS in the French landscape with the emergence of large research universities?
The CNRS has played a prominent role in the emergence of these world-class French universities and contributed to shaping the new higher-education landscape. The organization is rightly considered to have been a catalyst. From our point of view, this transformation has improved synergy between national and local site policies. We have sought to distinguish between our national missions—which include coordinating very large-scale research facilities, enhancing our international presence or driving certain scientific communities like that of mathematics—and site policies. Striking a balance between the two is essential for optimum research management. This positioning could only strengthen the CNRS on the global research scene, where the organization was at risk of being sidelined.
The CNRS hired 300 researchers and 300 engineers, technicians and administrative staff in 2017: you were committed to keeping recruitment levels consistent with scientific renewal...
I feel very strongly about this. The CNRS has many an asset and in particular that of offering young researchers approaching their thirties long-term stable employment, with true research freedom—a strength recognized by the International Advisory Board. In this area, we are highly competitive in comparison with other research organizations in France and abroad.
The quality of CNRS researchers is intangible. There is no figure that can be waved at the national authorities. And yet it is this quality that guarantees our capacity to make discoveries over time. It forms the basis for the excellent reputation of the CNRS and its laboratories.
This is why I fought for recruitment to be a priority and for maintaining the institution's ability to hire staff in all fields. I was only able to cut our losses as the overall headcount has actually gone down.
I am well aware that this is a difficult equation because we must also endeavour to enhance basic support for the laboratories. It is all the more complex as funding assigned to the CNRS has stagnated or even gone down in current euros over the last decade, while considerably increasing in neighbouring countries like Germany for example.
I am not one of those who consider that everything boils down to money, but there is nonetheless a minimum that cannot be squeezed.
In 2017, for the first time, the CNRS launched Momentum, a research programme for young researchers. What purpose did you intend this initiative to have?
The aim of the Momentum programme is to recruit young researchers eight years after completion of their thesis and give them maximum autonomy in terms of risk-taking and team management. The idea was to extend the CNRS-INSERM programme, ATIP Avenir1A CNRS/Inserm joint call for proposals for young researchers to set up teams within CNRS or Inserm laboratories—which proved a real success in the biology and health sector—to all disciplines.
A selective process attracts researchers who have already been published and want to initiate new projects, preferably in fields where our pool of talent is depleted or, conversely, involving themes that we wish to strengthen.
In doing so, the CNRS kills two birds with one stone: it becomes stronger while enhancing its attractiveness, as testified by the outstanding quality of the projects presented and the success of the first edition, which exceeded expectations. I wish a long life to Momentum. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Anne Peyroche who masterfully directed this initiative as she did for the Make our Planet Great Again programme. I trust the CNRS will never forget her contribution to the organization, both as Chief Research Officer and interim President.