A TV channel dedicated to science, EU grants, more collaboration with partners in Africa - CNRS boss sets big plans for international growth

15 Feb 2022 | News

As Antoine Petit begins his second term at the top of France’s biggest research organisation, he details an ambitious vision to strengthen French science

Antoine Petit, President and CEO, French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). Photo: CNRS

As he was re-confirmed on February 9 as head of France’s biggest research organisation, Antoine Petit floated a few attention-getting ideas in parliament – such as the possibility of starting a television channel for science.

‘CNRS-TV’ as he calls it, would profile researchers, show science documentaries and invite European partners to present their own work as well, in a concerted effort to better communicate science to society in France and the world. The specific plans – budget, francophone or bilingual - are still on the drawing board. But the intent, to strengthen and better project French science, is key.

“I think people do not really understand what is science, the scientific approach, what motivates scientists,” he says in an interview. A dedicated channel – something well beyond what his organisation already does on YouTube – “will encourage young people to do science,” he said. And it could project an image of French science to the wider world. “France needs science. The world needs science,” Petit told Science|Business.

As he starts his second four-year term as Président-directeur général of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, the 61-year-old computer scientist from the Paris suburb of Levallois-Perret has big plans for growth and outreach – to French citizens, to industry, to research partners in Europe, Africa and beyond. The organisation’s primary mission remains “fundamental research in the service of society,” as he put it in his parliamentary confirmation hearing on 2 February. But he also wants to see French science stronger in a global context, cooperating with other great research organisations around the world.

“It would be a tragic mistake to have Chinese research, French research, European research, US research – that would be silly. We face global challenges, and these global challenges need global cooperation,” he says.

A complex system

Petit’s organisation sits at the centre of the idiosyncratically French research system. Founded in 1939, CNRS today has a staff of 32,000 and a budget of €3.6 billion. It has more than 1,100 research units, mostly on academic campuses. Its tenured researchers are civil servants, and they fit into a complex national system of the elite Grandes Écoles, the regional universities, industrial labs and specialised research agencies for energy, space, informatics, agriculture and other fields. Given its size, CNRS is one of the world’s largest producers of scientific papers. It is the largest single recipient of EU research grants, winning €1.17 billion from 2014 to 2020.

Now, Petit promises more.

In Europe, he aims for a 25% rise in EU funding to CNRS over five years, in alignment with the French government’s stated goals. During the last EU R&D programme, Horizon 2020, its researchers won, on average, 18% of the grants they sought – well above the EU-wide average of under 12%. And to boost its score further, last year CNRS developed a frankly-worded strategy: to “wield influence” over the EU programme so it meshes with CNRS’ scientific priorities, to better train and support its researchers in applying for grants, and to develop new incentives for them to take the risk of applying.

The European “action plan” is detailed. While CNRS already does well overall in winning prestigious European Research Council grants, Petit wants to see more wins in the ERC’s most-senior funding for ‘advanced’ researchers. He wants more European Innovation Council awards for the 80 to 100 companies that CNRS spins out each year. Collaboration with industry in EU consortia is also important, building on its 200 joint labs with industry. While CNRS is strong in natural science grants, he thinks it could do better in the humanities and social sciences. To do all this, “We have to have a very focused and precise policy,” he says.

Another priority is Africa, expanding existing relationships in the north and south, and building new ones in sub-Saharan Africa. ““We know there is lots of talent in sub-Saharan Africa, and we only have one CNRS lab, in Senegal.” Going beyond existing regional cooperation in health and environmental research, he also wants to see more partnerships in other fields of basic science, such as digital sciences, chemistry and physics. “We want to enlarge the spectrum” of CNRS ties in Africa, Petit says.

Foreign researchers welcome

At the same time, CNRS wants to attract more researchers to France. For more than a decade, the agency has been advertising scientific opportunities to lure in talent and now a third of the annual new intake of permanent research staff is non-French. The attractions include the possibility of a stable contract as a civil servant, and recruits can focus on research, rather than be compelled to combine teaching and research, as at many universities.  Depending on the discipline, Petit notes, “You could have a permanent full-time position when you’re only 35,” which is not that likely elsewhere.

Of course, it takes money to do all this – and Petit wants more. In his confirmation hearing he complained that 84% of the annual €2.7 billion government grant to CNRS is consumed by personnel costs, leaving little for research. That state grant is supplemented by other funding, including competitive grants from the EU, the French government, research with companies, and other sources.

As Petit told deputies and senators at his confirmation hearing, “The room for manoeuvre of CNRS has been significantly reduced for 10 years, and is today very limited.”

The same goes for science generally in France. While Germany has steadily increased its total national spending on R&D to 3.5% of GDP, he noted, France has “stagnated” at 2.2% of GDP.

Given the budgetary pressures, how can Petit have a realistic chance of implementing so many plans for growth? That’s simple, he says. “I could say I need more money to do a lot of things. Or, I could say we will do a lot of things, and then we will need more money for that.” The second approach is usually more successful.  “You have to be ambitious,” he says.

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