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Research at the crossroads of Asia

19 décembre 2017


A short walk on Nanjing Road, the shopping street that cuts through the historic center of Shanghai, is all it takes to perceive the extent of the transformation that is taking place in China. “Look up—it’s all happening above our heads,” a frequent visitor from the UK tells us. “Every time I come, there are at least two new skyscrapers.” And not just any odd ones at that. Above a small pedestrian street dotted with traditional restaurants, a second city is taking shape, dominated by the new Shanghai Tower, the highest building in China and the third highest ever built in the world. This sprawling metropolis, with a population approaching 30 million, was selected by the CNRS as the location of AUR@SIA2017 last November 27-28. The biannual event is a summit meeting of the international joint units (UMI/UMIFRE)(1) in Asia, a continent that accounts for nearly half of all such structures in the world. The choice of venue is not without significance. “The CNRS has had very strong historical links with China for more than 40 years,” said Antoine Mynard, director of the CNRS office in that country, as he welcomed us to the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), which had graciously lent a complex of conference rooms for the occasion.

A full house and a full schedule

For two days, the symposium brought some 100 UMI and UMIFRE directors together with representatives of industrial groups (Arkema, Saint-Gobain, Solvay, Thales, Air Liquide, AXA…), universities, research institutes and funding agencies from about 15 countries The participants attended panel discussions, workshops and presentations hosted by a large contingent from the CNRS comprising regional office directors (from China, Japan, Singapore and India) and no fewer than three institute directors : Reynald Pain (Institute of Physics, INP), Jacques Maddaluno (Institute of Chemistry, INC), and Jean-Yves Marzin (Institute for Engineering and Systems Sciences, INSIS).

“The primary goal of these meetings is to show the power and influence of the CNRS outside of France, not only with our academic and industrial partners but also with funding agencies, practically all of which accepted our invitation,” reports a satisfied Patrick Nédellec, who as director of the European Research and International Cooperation Department (DERCI) has coordinated these biannual events in Asia and North America over the past four years. “Our guests in Shanghai included the chairman of the NRF(2) from Singapore as well as representatives from the NFSC(3) and CAS in China, and the CEFIPRA(4) in India. We want these partners to see the strength of the CNRS’s international network, which today is inseparable from universities and the business world.” This is no doubt why the AXA Research Fund offered its financial backing for AUR@SIA2017, as soon as the decision was made to hold the event in Shanghai.

Functioning as small “French outposts” in other countries, the UMIs are the only structures of their kind on the worldwide research scene. With an overall budget of €25 million, they represent a sizeable endeavor for the CNRS. And of course, they cannot be set up overnight : “This is always a bottom up approach,” Mynard emphasizes. These units, endowed for a renewable period of five years, are a logical outgrowth of the collaborations between CNRS researchers and foreign universities in fields that have reached “critical mass.” As Mynard explains, “they are often preceded by an international associated laboratory,(5) for example.” Moreover, it is important to offer them the best possible funding to ensure their stability and success, , as “researchers go abroad for a number of years, often taking their families with them,” he adds.

The UMIs represent a considerable expense for the foreign academic or industrial partners that host the laboratories and provide their infrastructure and equipment. “This is also true for the funding agencies, which, through these structures, also find themselves investing in new parts of the world,” Nédellec points out. Several UMI research projects in Asia have thus been funded by the H2020 EU framework programme. According to Laurent Bochereau, minister counselor for science of the EU Delegation to China, “most of the knowledge production takes place outside of Europe. We do not want to create a European ‘fortress’ of research. We must remain open to the world and not work in isolation, especially when it comes to global challenges.”

Another goal of AUR@SIA2017 was to foster a network of the CNRS’s research activities in that part of the world, allowing the 14 UMIs (out of 36 worldwide) and 5 UMIFREs (out of 25) to share their experience and strategies.

“It’s very constructive to see how other countries, including geographic neighbors, have the means to operate quite differently,” comments INSIS director Jean-Yves Marzin. “In terms of financing, several UMI directors can combine forces and submit a joint response to calls for proposals. But above all, it’s interesting to see how the UMIs can complement each other in certain fields of research.”

Around the continent

Asia is home to a vast array of research activities. Starting with the oldest UMI, the LIMMS,(6) which has hosted nearly 200 CNRS researchers since it was founded in 1995 at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Industrial Sciences (IIS). Specializing in micro- and nanotechnologies applied to engineering and biology (e.g. the Bio-Mems), it is now exporting these technologies to France through SMMIL-E, a program based in the Nord-Pas de Calais region that seeks to develop fundamental knowledge for purposes such as more effective cancer detection. In fact, Japan hosts the largest number of UMIs (five) in the region. Another example is the JFLI(7), which conducts research in IT fields like cyber-security. As its director, Phong Nguyen, points out, there has been an official dialogue between the two countries on this subject for the past three years. In the social sciences, exchanges date all the way back to 1924 and the founding of the RICJ,(8) now the only UMIFRE in Japan. “Every year we organize more than 80 events on a number of themes, ranging from traditional Japanese culture to mangas, which have become a global phenomenon,” reports director Cécile Sakai.

Asian “dragon”

Another important country for the CNRS in the region, Singapore is home to no fewer than four UMIs. One of them is the BMC2(9), a laboratory that explores the interface between physics and biology. Since 2014 its work has focused on mechanobiology, a field that director Virgile Viasnoff defines as “how microenvironments ‘talk’ to living cells.” Viasnoff’s team has succeeded in creating in vitro conditions that can simulate the cellular functioning of a biological organ, such as the liver. The technology has already spawned a startup called Membwell, which promotes partnerships in the medical and hospital sectors. “We’re always on the look-out for new partners, because this is an emerging discipline with potential applications in many sectors,” Viasnoff says. For Singaporeans, cooperation is essential. “Our country is small,” explains Low Teck Seng, CEO of the Singapore National Research Foundation. “It isn’t big enough to support a large-scale research ecosystem by itself. In addition, the fast pace of technological development prompts us to initiate collaborations with businesses.” In 2014 Seng’s foundation signed an agreement with the ANR (French National Research Agency) to fund Franco-Singaporean projects in materials science, nanotechnologies and nanosystems.

The Indian powerhouse

The CNRS is also very active in India, with UMIs in the information sciences in Chennai (RELAX)(10) and mathematics in Bangalore (IFCAM),(11), as well as two UMIFREs in Pondichery and Delhi. “China and India are going to experience upheavals of unprecedented speed and scope,” explains Nicolas Gravel, director of the CSH,(12) an UMIFRE created in 2007 to study demographic changes in Asia, among other issues. “In ten years from now, India will be the world’s most densely populated country, more so than China,” adds Frédéric Landy, director of the UMIFRE IFP,(13) whose fields of investigation include the connections between agriculture and the environment. “The country remains mostly rural, and the challenges, for example in terms of food security, will be enormous.”

East to Thailand and Vietnam, the CNRS’s presence also extends to South Korea, where in 2017 the organization launched its newest UMI, 2BFUEL, a laboratory specializing in organic semiconductors. “They’re the same devices that you’d find in your OLED screens, for example, but we also work on solar cells and circuits whose functions could prove highly useful in the health sector,” reports director André Jean Attias, who does not rule out the possibility of a collaboration with the Solvay group as part of the UMI’s operations.

The CNRS and industry : a long history

Solvay is in fact a close and valued partner of the CNRS, both in France and the US, but also in Shanghai through the E2P2L, a UMI whose team of some 20 international researchers, including three from the CNRS, develops solutions in green chemistry. “On one side we have Solvay, and on the other the consortium of research partners,” explains director Stéphane Streiff. “So we need to find projects that are of interest to both.” And the results have been impressive : “In seven years our work has given rise to 50 publications and 40 patents, 20 of which were developed in collaboration with the CNRS or other partner institutions. Last year we received more than a million euros in funding through H2020 and the ANR.”

The reason why industrial groups like Solvay and Saint Gobain (through the UMI LINK(14) in Japan) have forged so many partnerships with chemistry laboratories is simple. As INC director Jacques Maddaluno points out, “chemistry is both a scientific discipline and an industry. When a strong collaboration is established between academics and corporate researchers, there is long-term motivation to create something together that can lead to breakthrough innovations.” A cooperation project is precisely being formalized with Air Liquide…

This principle applies to other disciplines as well, like nanotechnology with the UMI CINTRA,(15) launched in Singapore in 2000 in partnership with the Thales Group. “For us, working at the international level isn’t a choice, it’s a reality,” says Philippe Valery, Thales’s VP strategy and partnership. “Three-fourths of our operations are based outside of France. We also want to integrate ecosystems at the local scale, to identify opportunities wherever they might be.” For CINTRA director Philipe Coquet, the advantages are obvious : “Our industrial partner gives us concrete use cases that help us find applications for our research. Yet we mustn’t ignore basic research, which is also very important. It’s a matter of striking a balance, which is exactly what we do with Thales.”

“Industry has to confront fundamental problems, which creates additional motivation,” says Abderrahmane Kheddar, co-director of the UMI JRL,(16) a leader in Franco-Japanese robotics research whose 20-strong team develops humanoid robots. “We help our industrial partners, like Airbus, Michelin and Mitsubishi, develop automata that can interact in a world made for humans, using tools, driving trucks, working in factories, etc.” The robotics expert also points out a significant benefit in terms of financing : “One of the advantages of UMIs is that they are financed by both partner institutions. My Japanese co-workers can get funding from the EU or the ANR, and we can get it from the Japanese authorities.” Kheddar mentions the example of an H2020 project between JRL and Airbus.

Next stop : AUR@ASIA2019

“Things are extremely flexible in the international arena, and we have to be constantly adapting to a fast-changing world,” Patrick Nédellec stresses. “Our UMIs and UMIFREs give France a genuine competitive edge, and an invaluable boost to our country’s credibility and image of scientific excellence.” As reflected by this Asian symposium, the CNRS international network has become much more than “the sum of its parts,” in the words of the DERCI director. Words that find broad resonance with the many researchers whose work transcends national, cultural and scientific borders. And who will gather again in Japan in two years’ time for AUR@SIA2019.

NOTES 1. An international joint unit (Unité Mixte Internationale, or UMI) is a laboratory created for a period of five years uniting the CNRS and a foreign partner institution. A joint unit with a French research institute abroad (Unité Mixte-Instituts Français à l’Etranger, or UMIFRE) is a similar partnership between the CNRS and the French Ministry for European and Foreign Affairs. 2. The National Research Foundation of Singapore. 3. National Natural Science Foundation of China. 4. Centre Franco-Indien pour la Promotion de la Recherche Avancée (Indo-French Center for the Promotion of Advanced Research). 5. An international associated laboratory (LIA) is a “laboratory without walls” that links a CNRS laboratory to a laboratory in another country for a specific jointly defined project. The two teams retain their independence, statutes and management in both countries, as well as their separate locations. 6. Laboratory of Integrated Micro Mechatronic Systems. 7. Japan French Laboratory for Informatics. 8. Research Institute on Contemporary Japan. 9. BioMechanics of Cellular Contacts. 10. Research Lab in Computer Science. 11. Indo-French Center in Applied Mathematics. 12. Centre de Sciences Humaines (Centre for Social Sciences and Humanities), New Delhi. 13. Institut Français de Pondichéry (French Institute of Pondicherry). 14. Laboratory for Innovative Key Materials and Structures. 15. CNRS International – NTU – Thales Research Alliance. 16. CNRS-AIST Joint Robotics Laboratory.