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17 International joint units from the Americas convene for the first time in Mexico City

8 June 2017

In a gathering of French science abroad, 17 CNRS international joint units (UMIs) from the Americas (North and South) recently met in Mexico City to learn more about one another. A showcase for French research, UMIs offer real opportunities for development between scientific as well as industrial partners.

After the meetings organized in Washington (2014), Singapore (2015), and Quebec (2016), the CNRS decided to step up its efforts in Mexico City on April 25 and 26, by bringing together, for the first time, all of the UMIs and UMIFREs [1] on the American continent, representing approximately half of all UMIs worldwide. Well established in the region, these laboratories cover practically all CNRS scientific disciplines, with a few exceptions. The event was meticulously organized by Xavier Morise, head of the CNRS office in Washington, and his counterpart Olivier Fudym from Rio, who serve as regional coordinators for scientific collaborations and partnerships. The two-day get-together attracted nearly 100 people—including UMIs’ directors and researchers from six countries (Canada, the US, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Brazil), scientific advisors, industrial stakeholders, representatives from international funding agencies, and a delegation of supervisory staff from the CNRS—to discuss the role, the future, and the growing importance of UMIs, a unique resource for scientific collaborations.

Successfully exporting French science

"The UMI is the highest and most integrated level of scientific collaboration that we can maintain with a foreign university or laboratory," stresses Patrick Nédellec, Director of the European Research and International Cooperation Department (DERCI). Among the many resources with varying levels of investment and supervision that enable the CNRS to pursue scientific collaborations abroad (PICS, GDRI, LIAs), the UMI represents a singular model within the global research landscape. It makes it possible to create an actual joint laboratory between the CNRS and a foreign research institution centered on specific projects, as well as providing co-financing (equipment, researchers, students) and management over extended and renewable periods of time (5 years). "A UMI is not a form of outsourced research. On the contrary, it provides a strong impetus for the research of excellence, involving the best researchers and institutions in the world," explains Morise. For that matter, these UMIs are not built around specific research fields, but on projects that can evolve, which gives them great flexibility, and an advantage for tackling major transdisciplinary issues (resources, energy, urbanization) in the field, together with academic and industrial partners.

"Our UMIs are extremely powerful links between French and foreign science," adds Nicolas Castoldi, former CNRS Technology Transfer Officer, who went to Mexico City to talk about the increasingly close relationship between some of the UMIs and the industrial world. In recent years, the CNRS has greatly accelerated the number and development of these structures, which greatly facilitate the dissemination of knowledge and circulation of researchers, by putting them at the core of its international strategy. There are 34 of these units across the world today, mostly in Asia and North America, and 28 of them are less than 10 years old.

Hosting this meeting of UMIs from the Americas in Mexico City was not coincidental, as France and Mexico have strong historical ties. For its American relatives, "France is the first scientific partner in mathematical sciences, and the second in physics," points out Jean-Joinville Vacher, Scientific Cooperation Officer at the French Embassy in Mexico. France is also the third leading choice for Mexican students, with more than 1,000 exchange assignments between the two countries in 2016. For the CNRS, this relationship represents approximately 20 projects per year over the last two decades. The first scientific cooperation agreement between the CNRS and the Mexican National Council on Science and Technology (CONACyT) goes back nearly 50 years. It was this same CONACyT that hosted the April gathering. "We are happy to welcome the CNRS and its UMIs, which enable us to overcome artificial barriers in a globalized world," said Director Enrique Cabrero Mendoza. This message took on particular resonance within an evolving geopolitical context, amid Brexit and tense relations with the US, whose representatives from the National Science Foundation (NSF) could not make it to Mexico City.

The CNRS also took the opportunity of this meeting to launch a new UMI in mathematics, and renew that set up in 2008 in the field of automatic control. “The French-Mexican Laboratory of Informatics and Automatic Control (UMI LAFMIA), created over 9 years ago, succeeded two LIAs, one in IT and the other in automatic control," points out Michel Bidoit, who heads the CNRS Institute for Information Sciences and Technologies (INS2I). Located within the Center for Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute (CINVESTAV) in Mexico City, this laboratory partly focuses on exoskeletons, autonomous navigation systems for drones, and miniature submarines. "One of the challenges for the LAFMIA is to develop further partnerships in the private sector in Mexico. We are already in talks with the automotive industry, and are obviously thinking of autonomous cars and manufacturing tools," adds Dr. Bidoit.

For Christoph Sorger, Director of the CNRS National Institute for Mathematical Sciences (INSMI), the creation of a new UMI in mathematics, the Solomon Lefschetz Laboratory (UMI LASOL), further consolidates an extended network of mathematicians in the Americas. In fact, the discipline already boasts two UMIs in Canada (PIMS, CRM) and two more in South America (IMPA in Brazil, CMM in Chile):"Our relationships with Mexico in the field of mathematics are fairly long-standing, with the UMI LASOL crowning eight years of collaboration between the CNRS and the Institute of Mathematics at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM)." Based on the UNAM campus in Cuernavaca, 80 km southwest of Mexico City, the UMI LASOL will give mathematicians great flexibility on research subjects ranging from singularity to algebraic geometry. "Each of these UMIs specializes in a number of subjects. For example, the CMM in Chile has genuine expertise in the management of mass data, and has succeeded in detecting supernovas through direct analysis of raw telescope data. The CRM in Montreal also works on Big Data, but is more oriented towards artificial intelligence and Deep Learning, such as learning the game of Go, or driving autonomous cars," explains Dr. Sorger. In addition to mathematics and the Americas, the meeting clearly raised the possibility of an interdisciplinary global network that could help UMIs develop, enhance their influence, and plan new research projects or partnerships.

This regional meeting enabled the directors of the UMIs to meet in person, as well as share administrative and financial practices. "To some extent, the UMIs directors are all experiencing the same thing," stressed Dr. Nédellec. "They manage a research unit that must comply with French regulation, while also taking into account that of the host country." And these regulations can vary: "Our regional offices must therefore display flexibility and creativity in order to make these regulations compatible," explains Hélène Naftalski-Maury, Regional Officer at the CNRS Paris Michel-Ange headquarters, who presented case studies and responded to questions concerning human resources, financial matters, partnerships, and technology transfer, as well as providing details on information or security systems, with a view to comparing practices and improving efficiency when setting up future UMIs. For these units also represent a substantial expense for the CNRS. "Funding agencies play an essential role in making this model not only sustainable but viable, and it was important for them to be present in order to explain the functioning of UMIs and their effect on global research," emphasizes Dr. Nédellec.

No doubt having a foot in each country is difficult, but it also offers advantages. For example, a UMI can simultaneously receive funds from the NSF (in the US) and Europe—something that universities and partner research organizations are well aware of. "UMIs are models that we should reproduce in Canada," points out Maryse Lassonde, Director of the Quebec Nature and Technology Research Fund (FRQNT), which supports the three UMIs in Quebec to the tune of CAD100,000 (approximately €70k) per year. Mario Pinto, President of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC-CRSNG), is pleased with the growing importance of international cooperation within the Canadian research landscape, and notes that 50% of the country’s co-publications today are produced with foreign entities. This federal Canadian organization is currently supporting two UMIs in Canada: the PIMS in mathematics, and Takuvik, which studies climate and anthropogenic change on marine and land ecosystems in the Arctic. Béatrice Saint-Cricq, the Partnership and Technology Transfer Officer for Takuvik, reveals how much having access to international funding has turned out to be an asset. "We have contacts with all of the countries that work on the Arctic, and our laboratory participates in numerous research programs from various countries," she adds. "Antares, for example, brings together no fewer than 20 states. The UMI serves as a bridgehead between Europe and North America. In terms of budget, obtaining funds on one side (European, say) can also be an incentive for other countries to participate. The UMI is such a strong model that the University of Laval (Canada) is trying to reproduce it with other countries, such as Switzerland and Brazil."

In Chile, Guido Garay, the Director of the French-Chilean Astronomy International Joint Unit (UMI-FCA), is of the same opinion. Before its creation in 2011, the FCA, a partnership between the CNRS and three universities in Chile, received very little national funding. Today however, this collaboration, which enables four French astronomers to work on-site at the Very Large Telescope (VLT), has given rise to nearly a hundred publications. On the French side, Nakita Vodjdani, International Relations Officer at the French National Research Agency (ANR), points out that 25% of the agency’s projects are jointly financed with other countries (of which 75% are in Europe), and that one of the ANR’s objectives is to promote European and international collaborations. "Having multiple sources of financing has increased the visibility of French research," she believes.

Another distinct advantage of the UMI model is the possibility of developing research between the public and private sectors, by mobilizing the best teams on strategic subjects over the long term, and doing so with research partners abroad. Some UMIs in the Americas have thus built strong relationships with industry. The partnerships between a number of UMIs and large industrial groups are very different with regard to agreements over patents, intellectual property, or operating methods, but they offer interesting aspects. For instance, the CNRS, Solvay, and University of Pennsylvania set up a UMI on soft matter (UMI COMPASS) in 2010, in an effort to develop innovative solutions for various issues such as industrial formulation or drainage of irrigation water into the soil. Arjun Yodh, Director of the Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter (LRSM) at the University of Pennsylvania, recounts how it took over two years of informal meetings to identify projects and define an intellectual property policy, but that the result is convincing. "We should promote exchanges between researchers and industrial stakeholders. A number of our students have incidentally started to work at Solvay afterwards," he explains.

At the MIT, another collaboration between the CNRS and the industrial sector has not gone unnoticed. The UMI MSE2, initiated in 2012 between the famous university and the CNRS, brings together approximately twenty researchers (five of whom from France). It is financed by industrial partners who are interested in specific subjects, such as reducing the environmental footprint of cement production or shale gas extraction (X-shale hub). Accustomed to working with multinationals like Shell and Schlumberger, the UMI will soon collaborate with Total. "We do not hold patents, we are counting exclusively on publications, which highlight our research and prompt other companies to collaborate with us. We are working in close cooperation with our industrial partners, with weekly exchanges between our teams," explains Roland Pellenq, the Director of the UMI. The CNRS intends to present and highlight this collaboration strategy to key industrial partners in France, so that the advantages of UMIs can also extend...to the home front.

[1] There are 26 Joint Units with a French Research Institute Abroad (UMIFRE) worldwide. While a UMI represents a partnership between the CNRS and a university or research organization abroad, the UMIFREs are partnerships between the CNRS and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.