The CNRS and Imperial College London launch a new international research center

The International Research Center (IRC) CNRS-Imperial, focused on digital transformation and global challenges, is the second IRC launched abroad by the CNRS. This new tool allows an ambitious strategic dialogue in order to define mutual interests and collaborations with joint and co-financed projects. What are the main areas of research selected for this IRC, and why?

Alice Gast
: This IRC is indeed a new scientific center which will stimulate the interdisciplinary collaboration. It will build on the complementary strengths of the UK and France in mathematical sciences, the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), data sciences and systems engineering. There are also growing collaborations in materials science, DNA data storage, medicine, food and nutrition. All these elements offer new opportunities towards the acquisition of new knowledge and to better address global challenges in order to make our societies smart, resilient, sustainable and healthy.

The CNRS-Imperial IRC aims in particular to support United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
through his research.

GA: Imperial and CNRS scientists were already working closely together to drive breakthroughs in health, equality and economic growth in the UK and around the world. Both institutions saw opportunities to increase this collaboration beyond what had already been achieved, leveraging our respective research strengths, to study and solve pressing global challenges related to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. .

These goals are essential to address the interrelated crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution, and the economic and social fragility they cause. They are also essential to the challenges we all face in public health and pandemic preparedness. In particular, Imperial and the CNRS plan to explore opportunities for research collaboration with partners in Africa. Our strong networks in Anglophone and Francophone countries will allow us to work more with our African colleagues.

Finally, Imperial recently launched a new centre, the Global Development Hub, to help maximize the impact of our research on society and in developing countries, but it also aims to commit to the SDGs. As part of these commitments, the teams are investing, with the CNRS and a wide range of European and African partners, to conduct research on environmentally friendly food systems.

Imperial College London campus © Imperial College London

Imperial College London is one of the best universities in the world – it is currently ranked 3rd in the UK and 3rd in Europe. What are its main areas of excellence and how does it see its role in a world that seems increasingly fragmented, at least politically?

GA: Imperial enjoys a worldwide reputation in science, engineering, business and medicine. Our scientists make major breakthroughs every year, from the world’s first human clinical trials related to Covid-19, to exploring the surface of Mars, to Professor Sir Martin Hairer’s 2021 Breakthrough Prize for Stochastic Analysis. Imperial is also one of the most international universities in the world. Over 60% of our students are international and our research collaborations with global peers spread to every corner of the world. These international collaborations are essential to our success.

Great science comes from diverse teams and international collaborations, and universities that truly collaborate will be best placed to educate future generations and deliver innovations that matter to society. I saw it when I spent a postdoctoral year and then during sabbaticals in France. These visits opened my eyes to how differences in culture, experiences and worldviews enhance our work. I remember sitting down to tackle a complex problem in condensed matter physics and finding that my French colleagues had a completely different approach than mine. Our complementary strengths, when combined, have enriched our work.

You have strong, long-standing ties with a number of partners, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). How would you describe your collaboration with the CNRS compared to your other partners?

GA: Imperial College London works with international partners in a variety of ways, including through joint laboratories and centres, seed and project funds, and student and staff exchanges. We have partnered with MIT for over 80 years and now have a student exchange program, a corporate program, and a common seed fund for basic research.

We also have strong and long-standing ties with the CNRS. For decades, our scientists have crossed the Channel to share knowledge, spend time in each other’s labs, and advance scientific knowledge. One of the most famous chemists in the world and winner of the Nobel Prize, Sir Derek Barton, has held senior positions at both Imperial College London and the CNRS. Today, the CNRS is in fact our leading European collaborator in terms of co-authored publications, with around 500 joint scientific articles published each year. The new IRC will accentuate this strong link that exists between Imperial and the CNRS. And we are already seeing our publications with the CNRS grow year on year since the launch of the International Research Laboratory (IRL) Abraham de Moivre in 2018.

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Alice Gast and Alain Schuh, Deputy Director General for Science at the CNRS at the launch of the Joint PhD Program in 2019. © Imperial College London

Other British universities have chosen other European countries – for example Germany – to concentrate their European collaborations there. Why, through this IRC, did you choose France as a partner and more particularly the CNRS?

GA: Imperial is one of the most international universities in the world and we work with many partners across Europe. Since the result of the Brexit referendum, we have developed a series of new European partnerships, for example with the CNRS and the Technical University of Munich. We will continue to build partnerships and collaborations in Europe and around the world.

French and British scientists have been collaborating for decades. France has a rich history of brilliant mathematicians and scientists. The country has produced six Fields Medal winners since 1990, including mathematician Cédric Villani, who visited our university with the CNRS a few years ago.

In 2018, we had the honor of hosting the first CNRS IRL in the UK. The IRL Abraham de Moivre is a common mathematics laboratory that serves as a platform for collaborations between the French and British mathematics communities. It has already hosted dozens of French mathematicians here in London. Since then, the partnership has gone from strength to strength and expanded to joint PhD projects on big data and international research projects on quantum fields and chains and integrative metabolism.

Our collaborative doctoral program is now in its third year. This is a fantastic program because it connects both our leading scientists – each project funds a PhD student at both partners for three years – and it attracts very bright PhD students who have access to the laboratories, academics and facilities of CNRS and Imperial College London. Doctoral students make it possible to strengthen research capacities and bring research teams together, in particular because the program has an element of exchange and integrated co-supervision under which our students will spend at least three to six months in a CNRS laboratory. and vice versa.

While the United Kingdom is no longer part of the European Union, the IRC arises, respectively, as a gateway for Imperial College London in France – and more broadly in the EU -, and for the CNRS UK. This is proof that a bond can be maintained despite Brexit. How do you assess the impact of Brexit on your European relations, and more specifically on the EU funding program Horizon Europe?

GA: We must not let these uncertain times distract us from the important work ahead. Our international commitments make us stronger and we will continue to build on them. We will continue to keep our doors open to students, collaborations and colleagues from around the world. Following the UK’s exit from the EU, it is more necessary than ever to strengthen ties with our partners in Europe. On both sides of the Channel, Imperial and the CNRS are keen to maintain close ties and to create new ones between their teams.

Imperial College London is home to some of the most talented scientists in the world and we continue to successfully secure funding from the Horizon Europe programme, including grants from the European Research Council (ERC). This year, we have obtained more than 10 million euros in funding from Horizon Europe. This success recognizes the value that scientists from Imperial and the UK provide to the European scientific community. We urge that the UK’s association with Horizon Europe be finalized soon. This new partnership with the CNRS will strengthen collaborative proposals for Horizon Europe and other research funding opportunities.

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The CNRS Abraham de Moivre IRL is a common mathematics laboratory that serves as a platform for collaborations between the French and British mathematics communities. © Imperial College London

Europe is currently experiencing its greatest conflict since World War II, and the research community has taken strong positions against Russia. What was the reaction of British research institutions?

GA: We are deeply concerned about the tragic events in Ukraine and our hearts go out to all those affected. We condemn the unjustified and inhumane invasion by the Russian Federation.

British, Russian and Ukrainian scientists have worked closely together for decades in areas such as health, high energy physics and space exploration. There is a long history of scientists working across borders in times of conflict, improving the world through their discoveries and playing an important role in rebuilding relationships that have been divided. These individual relationships must continue; however, we will not work with the Russian state.

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The CNRS and Imperial College London launch a new international research center


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