Total plans to locate its research and innovation department in the heart of Polytechnique, a school under the supervision of the French Ministry of the Armed Forces. The students are rising up and denouncing the affair because they do not want to associate the school's image with the oil and gas multinational. In spite of the State's supervision, is the Grande Ecole opening up to the logic of the market, and can it maintain its autonomy and ethical visibility in its mission of training in the service of the general interest?
UP' was already talking about it in March 2019: students, future graduates and young workers are on the alert and already in April 2018, students from Science Po had called on their school to end their partnership with Total. « Supporting the fossil industry appears to be a clear contradiction with the school's missions. Sciences Po no longer accepts partnerships with the arms and tobacco industries. Why then legitimize Total's industrial choices and destructive political influence by accepting a strategic partnership? ' John Hultquist, director of intelligence analysis for the cybersecurity company FireEye, then denounced the association Science Po Zero Fossil.
Already in the fall of 2018, 30,000 students signed a Manifesto called " Student Manifesto for Ecological Awakening The project is supported by the "Grandes Ecoles" (Polytechnique, HEC, ENS, AgroParisTech, Centrale-Supelec, Sciences Po and ESCP, etc.) at the initiative of Corentin Bisot: "We want to get students to rethink the relationship with business. Our manifesto is a real lever for changing mentalities and practices in depth. ".
A private group within a public education system
Total will locate its Research and Innovation Department and two of its private research laboratories at the heart of the École Polytechnique campus, and will fund a teaching chair, in defiance of the school's mission to train engineers to serve the public interest. Historically, the school was created to train the nation's senior civil servants and military executives. Every year, 45 engineers from the corps graduate from the polytechnicien curriculum and many of them are destined to work for major French companies. The training, paid for by the State and intended to serve it, must not be threatened by private interests.
Students and faculty will discover the information in December 2019. Since then, protests have been organized against the project, which would lead to the construction of a 10,000-square-meter building on the campus in April 2020 to accommodate up to 400 Total employees.
During a vote organized by the student council, 63% of the votes speak out against the project. In support of the students, a petition was launched ten days ago by 350.org and already collects almost 6500 signatures. It calls for an end to the ties forged with Total in the name of the climate emergency.
This Thursday, January 30, there was further support. Nicolas Hulot was received at Polytechnique where he gave a lecture. Broadcast live and put online on Youtube, this filmed exchange can be seen here :
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Nicolas Hulot's words are indeed enough to disturb the school (video at 1.02.20). We see a student questioning the former minister about Total's arrival on campus: " As you may know, Total plans to locate its Research & Innovation department on campus. Do you think it's a good thing to have private interests in the middle of a public school and us or can it be dangerous and compromise the independence of research?”
The student is applauded. To Nicolas Hulot then to answer: "Now you have the answer in the room. I say this without polemic: for me it is antinomic, it is not in keeping with the status of a school like yours to have this closeness and this link. That's what I'm saying.”
As the petition reminds us, the momentum to counter the power and influence of the fossil fuel industry has never been stronger. Pushed from all sides by public opinion, Total CEO Patrick Pouyanné (who was appointed to the Polytechnique board of directors), is making more and more statements This shows Total's involvement in the energy transition, while regretting that the debate is "too Manichean".
However, as the petition addressed to the President of the Ecole Polytechnique reminds us, Total financed the production of hydrocarbons for $9.2 billion in 2018 in investments compared to only $0.5 billion in the sector described as "low carbon", i.e. gas and renewables.
Total isn't the only band playing dangerous relationships with the university. It should be remembered that banks, such as BNP Paribas, whose image is tarnished by their financial practices or their disregard for ecological imperatives, are tempted to buy back a virtue by signing partnerships with universities. Gunther Capelle-Blanchard, a professor at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, threw a paving stone in the pond, in an op-ed published in March 2019.
According to him, the fear that the independence of academics will be used to satisfy the communication and marketing plans of major groups is not an illusion: in December 2018, the University of Paris Sciences et Lettres (PSL) - which includes Dauphine and the École Normale Supérieure - and the BNP Paribas bank announced the launch of a new degree programme for the start of the 2019 academic year: the "Paris Sciences et Lettres" (PSL), which is a joint venture between the University of Paris and the École Normale Supérieure, and the BNP Paribas bank. School of Positive Impact (or The School of Positive Impact). The stated ambition of this multidisciplinary training is "to train a new generation of decision-makers in the challenges of ecological, economic and social transition". The objective is obviously commendable. However, one may question the appropriateness of the partnership with BNP Paribas.
Debates on the place of business in higher education are frequent and often heated, and, for Gunther Capelle-Blanchard, it is not a question of blindly condemning the chairs. In France, they are rarely associated with a professorship, conferring academic recognition on its holder, as is the case in Anglo-Saxon countries.
Rather, they take the form of corporate sponsorship (sponsored teaching, support for research teams, etc.). Reluctance is traditionally rather strong in France and the Chairs have developed slowly. Nevertheless, they are profoundly transforming the way higher education functions and its missions.
For some, they represent a formidable lever for action, as advocated by some, for example Gilles Gleyze. On condition, however, that we avoid two pitfalls: that it becomes a pure communication operation for the company, with the backing of the scientific community, and that it undermines the independence of research. The fact that BNP Paribas has a chair of quantitative finance with the École centrale de Paris, from corporate finance with HEC, or digital disruption with ESSEC, that's understandable. But when BNP Paribas creates a chair on the stress test with the École polytechnique, whose stated objective is to "design solutions that meet the expectations of banking regulators", there are legitimate concerns about the independence of the research carried out there.
Example with the TREND-X program of Polytechnique in "partnership" with Total. December 18, 2018 The Chair "Technological Challenges for Responsible Energy" was launched. "between the X and Total. The goal is to provide a multidisciplinary innovation platform to meet the challenges of climate change and to provide training for tomorrow's technicians, engineers and decision-makers, particularly in technologies to support the energy transition.
Another vision is that of André Cayol, an engineer from the Compiègne IUT, explained in a paper published in UP', that French universities have never been very favourable, by tradition, to collaboration with industrialists. After May 1968 some professors at the Sorbonne would have felt they had lost their soul. But industry and France are in a bad way, more than 8 million people are unemployed (October 2019 figure), and it is necessary at all costs that large companies innovate, create new jobs and create new jobs. spin-off and enter new markets, all skills are welcome. Start-ups must also be created around universities... He nevertheless specifies that French universities must not become service companies, that is not their role, but in some universities or engineering schools, and not the least, companies or associations of researchers have been created which contract and assist researchers to formulate a research proposal that can advance the discipline and provide a concrete response to industrialists and yet address real research issues.
For André Cayol, the Ministry of Research needs to review the evaluation methods of researchers to encourage them to work for industry. Researchers often prefer to work on problems that allow them to publish even if they suspect that there will be no industrial applications afterwards.
So it is preferable for the evolution of innovation that researchers work alternately with industrialists and with their research group. And the evaluation committees must be composed by always introducing a certain amount of multidisciplinarity. But he also warns: It is important to have evaluation commissions bringing together researchers from several disciplines to avoid the sectarianism of the defenders of dominant concepts and, within a university, the orthodoxy of disciplines which can easily become doctrinaire and stifle creativity.
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Ethics as a Compass
Two philosophers who participated in the reflections on responsible research and innovation initiated by the European Commission, Sophie Pellé (1) and Bernard Reber (2)published a book in 2016 entitled Research ethics and responsible innovation "(ISTE Editions). The questions raised are structured around the theme of innovation and responsibility: How can ethical issues be integrated from the design of research projects? What is the meaning of the watchword of involving "societal actors": should we give priority to citizen participation or involve stakeholders?
The scientific and technological upheavals of the 20th century and the questions and difficulties that accompanied them (climate change, nuclear energy, GMOs, etc.) have increased the need to think about and supervise technoscientific progress and its consequences. Responsibility must be more widely shared, both within society and in the conduct of research and innovation projects.
This book is morally innovative. It analyses numerous cases and proposes perspectives rarely addressed in this emerging field (current practices of ethical assessment, concern for integrity in research, participatory technology assessment mechanisms, etc.), in an attempt to reconfigure the relationships between science, innovation and society.
Ecology at the heart of teaching as a crucial issue of the 21st century
The students of the grandes écoles have a new target: to put ecology at the heart of their teaching.
Already in 2011, Maeva Tordo, a student at ESCP Europe, had launched alternative courses in response to the observation that the content was unsuitable for ecological emergencies. She founded The NoiseA student association, a veritable observatory of social and environmental innovation.
Other initiatives are appearing in other grandes écoles, such as that of Cécile Renouard, a professor of philosophy and business ethics at ESSEC and the Ecole des Mines, who went into exile in the Yonne to create the "Yonne". Transition Campus. The aim is to propose coherent itineraries addressing ecological and social challenges. Like the Schumacher College in Great Britain, the Forges site combines the experience of an eco-place in transition, an academic and teaching laboratory, and support for companies and institutions.
Another initiative: theThe Ecocampus association of the ENS invites future thinkers, such as the author of the visionary ecological thriller Blue Century, Jean-Pierre Goux (Edition La Mer Salée - Collection Alternité, November 2018)...
However, these useful initiatives are far from being sufficient to structure an understanding of the issues at stake in the "next world" for future leaders. And teachers remain very cautious.
In fact, the malaise is immense: engineers are very poorly trained in their responsibilities to integrate ecosystem dimensions into industrial activities. « All training courses for the professions of sales, strategy, marketing or design engineers must agree to provide the necessary knowledge of the biosphere to know in which framework and within which physical limits we are acting. "explained Benoit Halgand, an engineering student at Polytechnique, in our March 2019 paper.
The strength of the student movement is that it wants to be realistic and concrete, despite being immersed in the anxiety of collapse. Paradoxically, students live in a technophile frenzy but are not fooled. They therefore seek to invent a passage between declinists and techno-fascinates that involves a radical conversion of modes of innovation. No more adjustments at the margins, any project must make sense and respect the habitability of the earth...
(1) Sophie Pellé has a doctorate in economic epistemology (Panthéon-Sorbonne University). Since 2010, she has been working on ethics and governance of new technologies (ANR Nano2e project and European GREAT project), as well as on the design and implementation of responsible innovation. Her latest book published is Business, Innovation and Responsibility, 2017, ISTE/Wiley edition.
(2) Bernard Reber is a philosopher, director of research at the CNRS, member of the Centre de recherches politiques at Sciences Po since 2014. Before that, he was at the Centre de recherches Sens, Ethique, Société (CNRS-Université Paris Descartes). He has a doctorate in political research (EHESS) and HDR in philosophy (University of Paris Sorbonne), after having followed a complete course of theology (specializing in political theology and interreligious dialogue).
He has produced more than 150 scientific publications. His latest work is entitled Precautionary Principle, Pluralism, Deliberation. Science and Ethics, London, ISTE-international and New York, Wiley, 2016, 247 pages. Also published in French, La Délibération des meilleurs des mondes. Entre précaution et pluralisme, 2017, 311 pages. He co-directs the Responsible Innovation series (London, ISTE and New York, Wiley) within the series "Interdisciplinarity, Sciences and Humanities" for which he is responsible, published in French and English (21 books). At the same publishers, he is responsible for the Epistemology field (40 books) within the Sciences project. His work covers topics in moral philosophy (responsibility, pluralism, values, moral theories), politics (deliberative democracy, responsible democracy), at the interface of the social sciences (critical citizenship, moral sociology) or in interaction with the natural and engineering sciences (ethics and climate governance, precautionary principle, digital humanities, participatory technology assessment).