The CNRS's six major societal challenges

The CNRS set out six major societal challenges in its last Objectives and Performance Contract (COP) signed with the French state to which it aims to make a substantial contribution through the coordinated mobilisation of its ten Institutes. 

In the  COP 2019-2023 the CNRS set out six challenges facing today's society that the organisation wishes to decisively respond to in the coming years through the coordinated mobilisation of its ten Institutes. These are complex challenges that were revealed or are driven by science like climate change and artificial intelligence or alternatively that can benefit from science shedding light on them like the energy transition.

The six challenges

1.    Climate change 
2.    Educational inequalities 
3.    Artificial intelligence 
4.    Health and environment
5.    Territories of the future
6.    Energy transition 

"It is new for the CNRS to explicitly set itself societal challenges to respond to as the organisation previously only set itself numerical targets for scientific production, success rates in European calls for projects or in the use of research results," explains Alain Schuhl, the CNRS Deputy CEO for Science (DGDS). This change is a matter of "common sense" because "the strength of the CNRS lies its capacity to create synergies between the strong disciplines it covers to help provide answers to the questions society asks that rarely confined to one discipline alone'.

The CNRS Scientific Office coordinated an inter-institute dialogue through which dedicated working groups identified its laboratories' existing actions and projects involving the six selected societal challenges. This highlighted the CNRS's specific added value as an organisation that covers all fields of knowledge and enabled the measures required to optimise interactions to be defined. Calls for projects were launched in September 2020 with each challenge being the subject of at least one call for projects. These calls were led and managed by the Mission for Transversal and Interdisciplinary Initiatives (MITI) whose objective is to support original interdisciplinary and breakthrough projects requiring the combined expertise of at least two laboratories from two CNRS Institutes. These six challenges also constitute a powerful tool to convey the CNRS's strategy in Europe and internationally because the issues of today and the future are multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary issues that go beyond the purely national level.

"The advancement of knowledge must remain our main motivation because it is essential to our capacity to understand and provide solutions to today's major socio-economic issues that will also condition the future. The societal challenges - climate change, educational inequalities, artificial intelligence, health and environment, the territories of the future and the energy transition - set out in our COP illustrate this motivation," as Antoine Petit, CNRS Chairman and CEO, makes clear.

1.    Climate change 

Increasing numbers of researchers are turning to themes linked to climate change because of the urgency of the issue. This is the case even though the study of climate change and finding solutions to limit or adapt to it are resolutely systemic and transdisciplinary and involve fields ranging from climate and energy sciences to ecology and social and political sciences with researchers working at all levels of observation, experimentation or modelling. Multidisciplinarity is a true specific feature of the CNRS and the organisation aims to use this strength to link these themes to enhance their visibility while contributing to the emergence of new synergies and original work. "To achieve this, we are studying the work of the different CNRS Institutes as well as international research with interest. Our aim is to set up a cross-disciplinary unit to focus on subjects that are not covered by our Priority Research Programmes and Equipments (PEPRs). One example is the instrumentation of the future for observing the climate using new low-energy and connected sensors which is the theme of the next conference organised in the framework of the climate change challenge," reports Sophie Godin-Beekmann, co-coordinator of the challenge and Deputy Scientific Director (DAS) at the CNRS National Institute for Earth Sciences and Astronomy (INSU).

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The exploratory PEPRs linked to this challenge : FairCarbon, OneWater, Traccs, Irima, Bridges 

2. Educational inequalities

The education system of today seems insufficiently capable of promoting equal opportunities for all pupils. How should this problem be dealt with? "The idea of equality takes little account of the differences between pupils and thus seems to have its limits. We need to focus on the notion of equity to address differences and provide pupils with individualised responses based on their starting situations as regards access to education according to their territory, age, population, disability and so on," explains Ricardo Etxepare, co-coordinator of the challenge and DAS at the CNRS Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences (INSHS). Those working on the educational inequalities challenge therefore aim to study such differences from an interdisciplinary standpoint at a time when the education system is undergoing a true revolution brought about by the new literacy that derives from digital technology. Three CNRS Institutes in particular are working on this issue - the Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences, the Institute of Biological Sciences (INSB) and the Institute for Information Sciences and their Interactions (INS2I) - and the aim is to integrate issues affecting all disciplines. "In June, the MITI launched a call for expressions of interest the aim of which is to set up consortia symbolising this interdisciplinary approach. Other initiatives are already underway like the 'Science for Education' Priority Research Programme (PPR) or the 'Digital Teaching' PEPR for which the CNRS is currently setting up networks of the teams involved". In 2023, an international multidisciplinary conference will be organised on the theme of educational inequalities with the Priority Thematic Network (RTP) on Education to bring together the scientific community to study educational issues. In the long term, the challenge's coordinators are considering the creation of a scientific observatory on educational inequalities to monitor the impact of research investments and determine how long-term research could provide responses to educational inequalities.

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Linked to this challenge : the 'Digital Teaching' acceleration PEPR, the 'Autonomy' (ageing and disability) PPR

3. Artificial intelligence 

The development of digital technology and artificial intelligence (AI) is revolutionising the practice of research in many scientific areas through progress in massive data, complex algorithms, machine learning, automation and so forth. Constructing the AI of tomorrow to accelerate scientific discovery inherently involves a multitude of scientific, ethical and environmental challenges. The many disciplinary fields the CNRS covers mean it is the only French – and even European - organisation that can deal with these issues as a whole. Rather than simply juxtaposing the issues, the subject will benefit from an integrated approach with two fundamental and complementary pillars - AI for Science and Science for AI as represented by the ASSAI centre of the same name that has been set up in the framework of the CNRS AI challenge set out in the COP. "The creation of this multidisciplinary centre launched in November 2021 will create a favourable space for dialogue between interested scientists from different disciplines and from AI to structure communities and establish new collaboration modes between AI and the other sciences. This will involve the organisation of thematic semesters which are the centre's true foundations and will include conferences, webinars, seminars, and research schools enabling scientists from various disciplines around the world to take stock of established issues," reports Jalal Fadili, director of the AISSAI centre.

Linked to this challenge : The 'Artificial Intelligence' acceleration PEPR, the 'Diademe' exploratory PEPR

4. Health and environment

Several infectious episodes of zoonotic origin (HIV, Ebola, the plague, COVID-19, etc.) have demonstrated that interactions between environmental disturbances, the exploitation of ecosystems and human populations can lead to global health risks. As well as microbiological risks deriving from infectious diseases, the chemical risk linked to air, water and food pollution is also an issue. "Scientists have been working on issues related to the environment and health for a long time now. The fact the CNRS defined "health and environment" as a challenge in its COP demonstrates the organisation's commitment to the issue, to enhancing the visibility of the many facets of research in this area and to increasing the momentum of research focusing on interactions between the two themes. This is a truly important issue for society and involves multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research along with integrated long-term monitoring," says Anne-Marie Gué, coordinator of the challenge and scientific delegate at the Institute for Engineering and Systems Sciences (INSIS). The health and environment challenge is more specifically based on the development of interdisciplinary health and environment observatories monitoring the emergence of and/or documenting risk situations. These structures benefit from all the CNRS's disciplinary expertise including input from fields ranging from ecology and environmental science to economics, sociology, information science, modelling and engineering sciences. "We have initially concentrated on four sites - the Seine territory, the Camargue area, the 'Environment-Health-Society' International Research Laboratory (IRL ESS) in Dakar and the iGLOBES IRL in Arizona. So far, we have funded three consortia and an interdisciplinary cluster of four theses, all of which are part of one of the pilot sites, and we intend to enhance and increase this collective dynamic in 2023."

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The exploratory PEPRs linked to this challenge : Irima, One Water

5. Territories of the future 

The 'broad transversal' territories of the future challenge includes all the same issues as the other challenges set out in the COP. It involves the study of technologies and population trajectories, highlights the impacts of urbanisation, risks for biodiversity and inequalities, stresses the importance of energy transition and climate change issues and could also benefit from AI. Several lines of thought are currently being explored to develop detailed understanding of the complex system a territory represents, to share data and construct solutions that provide optimal responses to citizens' concerns. The territories of the future challenge has selected the Aix-Marseille metropolitan area as its pilot territory to carry out experiments on a system that has the potential to be reproduced in other territories. "There are a number of issues within the Aix-Marseille metropolitan linked to its coastal location, pollution, urbanisation, mobility, the environment and biodiversity. Our objective is to find a method enabling stakeholders and researchers to construct the right research issues together," explains Stéphanie Vermeersch, co-coordinator of the challenge and DAS at the INSHS. To achieve this, the CNRS recently organised a conference-workshop for exchanges between researchers, elected representatives, associations and the local authorities. The aim was also to determine the key issues to be dealt with through interdisciplinary collaboration and participatory research.

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Linked to this challenge : the 'Solutions for a Sustainable City and Territorial Innovations' acceleration PEPR

6. Energy transition 

Inter- and multi-disciplinary work has led to the emergence of new directions based on research at the disciplinary interfaces and these are of core importance to the energy transition challenge which requires dialogue and arbitration so a good balance can be found for the planet and society alike. The energy transition challenge relies heavily on the Energy Unit which promotes interactions between scientific and technological research into energy systems and the impact of such technologies on the environment and society in terms of lifestyle, societal and economic behaviour and so forth. The Energy Unit also develops new directions based on research at disciplinary interfaces. Indeed, "the social dimension involving forms of behaviour, practices, policies and the regulation of consumption also serves as a pillar for research linked to this challenge", reports Abdelilah Slaoui, coordinator of the challenge and head of the CNRS Energy Unit. The workshop for thought and prospective study of energy issues (Arpege) dedicated to this challenge defined three major ambitions - resilience, flexibility and sobriety - which need to be integrated into our future technological developments. Methodological, instrumental and interdisciplinary dimensions also need to be developed for these three ambitions. A specific transversal conference to focus on these issues on April 28th 2023 at the CNRS headquarters.

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The acceleration PEPRs linked to this challenge : 'Decarbonated Hydrogen''Advanced Energy Systems Technologies', 'Decarbonisation of Industry', 'Solutions for a Sustainable City and Territorial Innovations', 'Batteries'
The exploratory PEPR linked to this challenge : 'Subsoil'