Imperial College reinforces European links with French partnership

Imperial College London has set up a wide-ranging partnership with CNRS, France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, in a move to sustain cross-Channel collaboration in the wake of post-Brexit barriers to academic co-operation.

The joint International Research Centre for Transformational Science and Technology will apply mathematics and data science to fields from medicine and materials science to climate change and chemistry, including EU-funded projects. The two institutions will collaborate on training early career scientists and will share facilities, infrastructure and data.

“This partnership demonstrates Imperial’s commitment to strengthening our ties with Europe through improving mobility and providing opportunities for researchers to exchange ideas,” said Alice Gast, Imperial’s president. “The international research centre will bring about the highest level of collaboration between French and British scientists.”

Alice Gast
Alice Gast: “The international research centre will bring about the highest level of collaboration between French and British scientists.” © Charlie Bibby/FT

The initiative will help sustain Imperial’s involvement in European science in the face of the EU’s continued refusal to admit the UK to associate membership of its €95bn Horizon Europe R&D programme following its departure from the bloc.

Antoine Petit, who was recently reappointed to a second four-year term as CNRS chief executive, is an outspoken advocate of continued participation by the UK and Switzerland in EU research, which Brussels is blocking as a result of political disagreements.

“We seek an exception for science,” he said. “We need to show politicians that scientific collaborations between our countries are important to all of us. Everyone will miss out if collaborations decline.”

Petit said CNRS was negotiating a similar research partnership with Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. With an annual budget of €3.8bn, CNRS is one of Europe’s largest scientific organisations and the top institution in terms of receiving EU research grants.

James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, commented: “This does look like quite a coup for Imperial, and I’m sure it will encourage other top UK universities to look for similar bilateral opportunities.”

Imperial’s International Research Centre builds on existing collaboration with CNRS which has grown substantially over the past 15 years, including a joint mathematics laboratory established in 2018. The EU-funded projects on which Imperial and CNRS have collaborated since 2007 had a total value of over €1.4bn.

Antoine Petit
Antoine Petit: “We need to show politicians that scientific collaborations between our countries are important to all of us. Everyone will miss out if collaborations decline.” © Stephane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images

The two institutions declined to say how much they expected to spend on joint projects in future but the sum is likely to run to tens of millions of pounds a year.

Jo Burton, policy manager at the Russell Group of research-intensive UK universities, said: “The new CNRS-Imperial joint research centre demonstrates the enduring close ties between leading researchers in the UK and France.”

Burton said she remained optimistic, although there is no sign of an end to the political disagreements between the UK and EU, particularly over renegotiations to the trading arrangements in Northern Ireland, which are blocking British participation in EU R&D programmes.

“Despite the delay, UK association to Horizon Europe would be a win-win for the UK and our international collaborators at a time when co-operation across Europe is more vital than ever,” she said. “We hope to see association finalised as soon as possible and look forward to working with our European partners on a range of research projects.”

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