The Letter 6


Campus Plan, Labex, Equipex, Idex...: Why and How the Collège de France has engaged in Competition for Investments for the Future

It is widely agreed that knowledge and research appear to be priorities in a world fraught with uncertainty regarding the directions to take to solve its demographic, economic and ecological problems. Many countries, including those known as emergent, have clearly understood this and are developing means to ensure that they will eventually be leaders in these fields. In today's world, higher education and research can be conceived of only in an international context. Although France ranks between 4th and 7th globally for its scientific production, and 4th and 2nd, respectively, for the number of its Nobel laureates and Fields medals, this status is by no means guaranteed indefinitely and must be strengthened even further.

For these reasons, the French government has decided to substantially increase funding for higher education and research. Rather than granting funds to individual institutions, it has opted for a strategy of providing additional funds to institutions that group together. The aim is to create high-level, coherent research and education entities which are internationally competitive and visible.

Two series of measures have been implemented, the "Plan Campus" and the "Grand Emprunt":

1/ In 2008, a ‘Campus Plan' was adopted with the aim of grouping together several institutions in the form of centres ("poles") of higher education and research (PRES - Pôles de recherche et d'enseignement), and to enable them to promote a policy of property development on their site.

2/ As part of the "Grand Emprunt" ("Big Loan") scheme, a very considerable sum was allocated by the government to higher education and research (close to 20 billion Euros).

The Grand Emprunt put out several calls for proposals designed to support research. Project proposals had to be submitted by several laboratories working in partnership: either laboratories of excellence (Labex) or facilities of excellence (Equipex). The "excellence initiative" (IDEX) call for proposals by the "investments for the future" (investissements d'avenir) programme of the Commissariat Général à l'Investissement is by far the largest. It is designed to support the emergence of 5 to 10 centres (poles) of excellence and has received 7.7 billion Euros in the form of a non-expendable endowment, for a period of 20 years.

In this context, the Collège de France had to decide whether it should participate in these operations or not; whether it ought to remain aside, outside the groupings that were taking shape around it, or, on the contrary, whether it should consider joining forces with partners close to it both geographically and intellectually. This was a dilemma, for the Collège de France, founded in 1530, is proud of its traditions and jealously maintains them. It has passed relatively uneventfully, and without any major reforms, through historical and political upheavals. In this respect, it is France's oldest higher education and research institution. Its main mission, "teaching research in the making" freely, in all senses of the word, without the constraint of delivering degrees, is still the same as the mission assigned to it by King Francis I. The Collège de France differs from other institutions in the status of its professors and in its particular mode of governance based on a sovereign general assembly of professors which enjoys a broad leeway, similar to that which still prevails in some prestigious British and American institutions.

The International Committee on Scientific and Strategic Orientation (COSS) has emphasized that these original features must be maintained, for "they contribute to making the Collège probably the only place in the world where cutting-edge research can be shared with anyone who is motivated and interested, without any barriers of qualifications, age or social background". From this point of view, it is a "specialized laboratory for experimenting with the democratization of knowledge".

A unique scientific environment

2008: the Campus Plan was an opportunity for the Collège de France to embark on the creation of the PSL (Paris Sciences et Lettres) foundation for scientific cooperation.

The Collège de France, a unique and original institution, is already open to interaction with universities, with the economic and social worlds, and with institutions abroad.

This was evidenced recently by its creation of several annual Chairs on social topics, by its promotion of teaching and research between several of its Chairs and other institutions (notably the École des Chartes, EHESS and EPHE), by the fact that it gives PhD students the possibility of validating a part of their PhD course by attending lectures and seminars at the Collège, and by signing many international teaching and research agreements.

The Collège naturally maintains a long history of collaboration in teaching, training and research with its closest neighbours in the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève area of Paris: ENS-Ulm, the École d'Ingénieurs de Physique Chimie de Paris (ESPCI ParisTech), the École d'Ingénieurs de Chimie de Paris (ENSCP ParisTech) and the Institut Curie. An illustration of this collaboration is the career of Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, who was simultaneously professor at the Collège de France and director of the ESPCI. The renovation of the laboratories currently underway on the Marcelin-Berthelot campus of the Collège is contributing to the revival of a long tradition of collaborative research in biology, chemistry and physics. The Collège is furthermore building technology platforms in partnership with teams from other institutions, and is setting up research projects with them. All these actions require substantial investments which cannot be covered by the Collège's usual recurrent grants.

In 2008, the Collège de France therefore decided to fully adopt the "Campus Plan" with a view to more rapidly attaining and amplifying the objectives shared with these neighbours, based on its long history of rich collaboration with them. From the outset, it was instrumental in creating an original research and higher education group with the ENSUlm, the ESPCI ParisTech, the École de Chimie ParisTech and the Observatoire de Paris Meudon, to form a "PRES" called "PSL, Paris Sciences et Lettres". The legal structure of PSL is a foundation for scientific cooperation that has the advantages of flexibility peculiar to a private law foundation, while nonetheless having the possibility of receiving public funds. This foundation was created by decree on 8 July 2010.

PSL's application for funds from the Campus Plan includes several building and renovation projects. The Collège de France's project for its Institute for Civilizations immediately appeared to be a priority, due to the unique complementarity of this prestigious unit with the documentary resources of the ENS-Ulm, in particular. This Institute, situated on the Cardinal Lemoine Campus, currently groups together in dilapidated premises a set of nine human science Chairs in the fields of oriental studies and anthropology, as well as specialized libraries, laboratories and several research teams working on the Middle East (Egyptology, Ancient Near East, Assyriology, Semitic and ancient Christian studies, Byzantine studies), East Asia (China, Japan, India, Korea and Tibet) and social anthropology.

Located on the former premises of the École Polytechnique, at the top of the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, this remarkable entity owns exceptionally rich archives and attracts French and foreign researchers of the highest calibre - but not in conditions worthy of its reputation. The buildings in which these libraries and research teams are housed have not been refurbished since 1979 and require extensive renovations at an estimated cost of 22 million Euros. The Collège de France, wanting to ensure a balance between development projects in the hard sciences and the diversity of research in the human and social sciences, at the heart of Paris' Latin Quarter, has prioritized this particular project. A work group led by Pierre-Étienne Will, Chair of the History of Modern China, is responsible for it. The scientific study of these past and present civilizations is one of our only means to further our understanding of the contemporary world in its full diversity, with all its surprises. This Institute of Civilizations will be an exceptional tool to ensure the visibility of French research.

In April 2011, the Collège de France was therefore particularly pleased that the PSL Campus project was selected by the Ministry of Higher Education and Research, and allocated a grant of 70 million Euros. The PSL renovations subsidized under this project, along with the level of funding, will be known shortly.

A unique opportunity

2010: PSL engages in the competition for IDEX (excellence initiatives)

Under the Grand Emprunt, the government's IDEX call for proposals is intended to stimulate the emergence of groups of training and research institutions of an excellent standard. This corresponds to the PSL's objectives and to that which constitutes the very essence of the Collège de France: creation of new forms of teaching, development of original interdisciplinary research, transfer of research results and imparting of knowledge.

Within the PSL Foundation, the Collège de France therefore naturally took up this new challenge, with determination and conviction but also with caution and very careful assessment of the circumstances and implications. To adequately meet these new challenges, PSL decided to approach other institutions in the fields of economics and financial management, health and artistic creation. In September 2011, the PSL Foundation consequently incorporated four new founding members (the Institut Curie, the Université Paris-Dauphine, the CNRS and the INSERM) and seven associate members (four art schools - the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris, the Conservatoire National Supérieur d'Art Dramatique - as well as the Institut National de la Recherche en Informatique et en Automatique (INRIA), the Institut Louis Bachelier, and the Pierre-Gilles de Gennes Foundation for Research).

The Collège de France is involved at several levels of this IDEX project: participation in two Labex programmes ("Memolife" in the bio-sciences and "TransferS" in the human and social sciences); head of Liberlabo, an original initiative for sharing and using PSL's documentary resources; and creation of PSL's website, in addition to the huge task of managing the information systems that have to be set up to interconnect the various institutions.

In July 2011, PSL's IDEX project application, encompassing 6 Labex and 6 Equipex, was selected along with only two other IDEX for the entire country (the Universities of Strasbourg and Bordeaux) by an international jury and the ministry. The funding received will enable PSL to undertake ambitious research and training programmes and to enhance the visibility of the high-quality research conducted in participating institutions.

A unique experience

A new model for singular institutions

For the IDEX, the independent international jury and the ministry made the bold choice of selecting and recognizing a new model. Each of the PSL institutions has its own history, in some cases very old and in others more recent. Each one was founded with a particular research and teaching mission, at a particular point in the history of higher education in France, when the universities did not fulfil such missions. Each one has shown, with its singular trajectory and the specific mission that it has fulfilled and continues to fulfil, what it was created for. The strong identity of each of these historical institutions suffices in itself to show that PSL is not a project for the integration or merging of various institutions grouped together into a foundation for scientific cooperation.

PSL is thus a reactive, creative and ambitious structure, at the service of projects common to the institutions comprising it, and which will be funded by the additional grants provided by the IDEX. PSL is governed by a Board on which each of the founding institutions is represented, as well as a chairperson, appointed by the Board and assisted by a vice-chairperson and an administrative vice-chairperson. Three councils (for training, research, and knowledge transfer) will each have the task of determining the PSL's policies in these different areas. They will interact closely with the management team.

This governance team will have at their disposal the new resources provided by the "investment for the future" funds and will allocate them to target objectives, following the recommendations of the three councils. Each institution's autonomy is deliberately preserved in the project, as each one has its own particularities, statutes and budget which cannot be challenged. The Collège de France, under the direct protection of the President of the Republic, will never do anything to undermine its scientific independence, be it with regard to the particular status of its professors, their appointment, the organization of its teaching, the way its own research is conducted, or the management of its own resources and those provided by the state.

Thus, PSL will bring together the different institutions constituting it on ambitious and innovative projects, and at the same time respect their specific characteristics. The funding provided by the IDEX to PSL, as well as the choice of fostering cooperation between various exceptional institutions, are a unique historical opportunity to boost French academic life by building on the particularities that differentiate it from most higher education organizations internationally.

The Collège de France is therefore concerned above all about the visibility of French research in the context of globalization and of accelerated competition in which we now live. It is aware of the national effort that the Grand Emprunt represents, and of the trust thus placed in the research community during such difficult economic times.

Therefore, alongside its main partners within PSL, the Collège de France will be the initiator and guarantor of innovative operations, while vigilantly maintaining the secular traditions of independence and academic freedom underpinning our international image of excellence.

Professor Pierre Corvol
Administrator of the Collège de France