"We must assume that research is a form of competition"

“We must assume that research is a form of competition”

Antoine Petit, 61, was reappointed head of the CNRS and its 32,000 clients on February 9, for a second term. A trained mathematician, former university professor, talks about his work within the organization and his research vision.

Why was he a candidate for a second term at the head of the National Council for Scientific Research?

We have never needed science as much as we do today, as the ongoing pandemic reminds us. CNRS is a unique institute on the French scene, with an international reputation, which I note on every one of my trips abroad, and thus has a role to play in enabling France to remain a prosperous country. It is an exciting challenge to be faced.

You summarized your motivation with the slogan: “Basic Research in Community Service”. what do you mean ?

The first message is to say that basic research is essential. We are often opposed to basic research and applied research. But I don’t know what applied research is, we don’t do it at CNRS! On the other hand, and this is not the same thing, we have the ambition to apply our basic research. Mais il faut comprendre que cela peut prendre du temps, comme le rappellent les exemples de l’ARN messager avec la découverte de cette molécule par Jacob et Monod en 1961, ou les techniques de machine learning en plus intelligence artificielle, qui de remontentrent years. The second message has three objectives.

First of all, it is research in the service of society as it responds to societal challenges, such as those we identified in our recent Goals and Performance Decade: climate change, education inequality, artificial intelligence, health and the environment, regions of the future and the energy transition.

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The second goal targets the economic world, in particular the creation of start-ups, about a hundred companies a year, and new joint laboratories with companies (two hundred today). Here again, I insist on the fact that what we do with industrialists is fundamental research. A manufacturer who has a problem to solve in six months or a year does not have to come to see us. It is not our job. Our job is to anticipate what manufacturers will need.

Finally, the third goal is to assist in understanding and decision-making. Scientists are not there to make the decision on behalf of the people or the decision makers, but on the other hand, they have to provide them with the necessary tools. It is also necessary to explain what a scientific approach is and to provide the means to check whether such and such an approach is reasonable.

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