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Mobilizing universities and engineering schools for industrial research and innovation

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French universities have never been very favourable, by tradition, to collaboration with industrialists. After May 1968, some professors at the Sorbonne would have had the impression of losing their soul... But industry and France are doing badly, more than five million people are unemployed, and large companies must innovate at all costs, launch themselves into new markets, and all skills would be welcome. 
Universities and research centres must be mobilised to meet industrial demands; startups must also be created around universities and spin-offs around large companies.
 
Pierre Gilles de Gennes, who had been awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1991, explained that the most interesting research in his career had been proposed to him by an industrialist who extracted and transported sand and had told him to solve a very concrete problem, apparently trivial, that he encountered on his installations: "From time to time the sand gets stuck in the pipes or in the tanks and I don't understand why" said the quarry operator! 
This request, formulated in a simple sentence, had led to ten years of research and the resolution of some of the most complex problems of his career with very beautiful and innovative equations and advances in the design of shapes, surfaces, diameters and changes in the direction of installations.
A few blockages that we will try to analyse prevent this close and yet highly desirable collaboration between universities and industrialists.

The difficulty for universities of industrial contacts

In order for French universities to find their place in innovation, they would have to have very close contacts with industrialists... These two worlds are very different: companies work in the short term, in universities a thesis lasts three years and research often lasts a lifetime. 
One of the solutions that the Université de technologie de Compiègne (UTC), my home university, had found for these two worlds to meet was to offer compulsory internships to its students and to organise follow-up in companies.
Teachers must be committed to visiting a student at the placement site. They receive teaching credits for this and their travel expenses are reimbursed by the UTC after the visit. However, contact with industry can be established. Sometimes it will not be followed up, as the internship will solve the problem at hand. Sometimes, if the internship is not enough to solve the problem posed by the industry, a collaboration will start for a few years. Sometimes the teacher will propose consulting, a short research, a thesis or a longer research...all this depends on the problem posed. 
 
UTC of Compiègne
 
It is often not easy for a teacher to make these contacts. I've seen young teachers get "stage fright" when they accompany me to companies. More often than not, both the Teacher-Researcher and the Industrialist are intimidated. And only experience will make these contacts easier and more natural.
 

Contractualization of research

The academic researcher who will have had this valuable industrial contact must then be able to propose, individually or with the competent members of his lab, "research contracts". Normally, if he proposed the follow-up of the student, it is because he was interested in the field covered.
The researcher must then hurry to answer, because most often researchers do not have the same time constraints as industrial managers. A quick response is needed. A week to 15 days maximum is a normal time to respond to industrial requests and proximity and availability are important. At the UTC we had people with legal expertise in our researchers' association. GRADIENT that we had created to administer the research. And our association brought in 1/3 of the university's research budget, but was managed independently of the university's central administration. The purpose of a contract is to formalize a good balance in the "researcher-industrial" relationship ... and GRADIENT had a legal expert review our contracts. For example, the last contract I signed with Repetto for the design of the new ballet shoes (or pointe shoes) provided for payment for the research time, but if a patent was filed, the company would have to pay royalties and the patent I allowed Repetto to file brings me a small sum every year that makes our joint success a reality.
 
But these research contracts are impossible to manage by the administration of the French university. Indeed, with the rules of public accounting, money must be available for an accounting officer to start paying for the purchases necessary to start the research. This rule generally causes us to lose three months, whereas our association under the law of 1901, thanks to its treasury, advanced the first expenses necessary for our research, which could start as soon as the contract was signed. For the researchers, this association was precious because it brought real services. The contracts were then concretely processed in the lab, sometimes in several labs, and the cash flow of each researcher was monitored by the management tools of the association. GRADIENT to which the researchers had access. These contracts managed by our association also made it possible to fund a "lab account" used to pay employees, send researchers to seminars, without the need to solicit sponsorship from companies... nor from the university (which operates thanks to our taxes). 
As we know, this sponsorship as it is practiced in medicine or pharmacy is never free!

Changing the way researchers are evaluated to ensure that research useful to industry does not harm their careers.

Current assessment methods are conducive to NANA (1)  (Applied Search Not Applicable).  I will quote Daniel Thomas (2)a brilliant biological engineering researcher and chairman of the UTC Scientific Council, who said: "It is not because research is useless that it is necessarily fundamental". Researchers often prefer to work on problems that can be published even if they suspect that there will be no industrial applications afterwards.
It is preferable for the effectiveness of industrial innovation that researchers work alternately with industrialists and with their research group... but researchers who succeed in working for industrialists by establishing long-term contacts and signing research contracts that "advance" the knowledge of universities... and industry delay their careers. In France, whatever the subject of the research, no matter how good the results, a researcher who works for industry delays his career. Researchers are "graded" essentially on their publications by a commission independent of the university hierarchy. 
In fact, publications about studies and research carried out for manufacturers are often delayed so that the manufacturer has time to develop the product, launch the manufacturing process, and take out patents. In general, but it depends on the contract, the researcher is cited and often the property can be kept by the University by accepting the concession of free licenses when the industrialist has paid for all the research.
This delay for patents to be filed is always very penalizing for researchers, working for an industrialist, makes the publications that he can submit scarce for a few years. Moreover, publications on research in collaboration with companies are often multidisciplinary and transversal, as almost all industrial problems require. To be well judged by one's peers, on the contrary, one must be at the centre of one's discipline. You can see how difficult this is! 
Most industrial contracts are, as a result, neglected or even scorned by all researchers who want to advance rapidly in their careers . 
 
Research with industry must be introduced into universities that do not practice it, with great care, as academics must be introduced to these relationships most of the time. They are happy for industry to finance their research, but they do not always understand that an industrialist, when he signs a contract, wishes above all to have a concrete answer to a specific industrial problem. Their research and publications are most often seen as a by-product of that answer.
Nor should this contribution to industrial research be confused with consulting, as practised by the bosses of certain university laboratories to give scientific backing to the products of certain manufacturers; but this is most often the case in the pharmaceutical or chemical industries.
French universities should not become service companies, that is not their role, but in some universities or engineering schools, and not the least (Arts et Métiers, Ecole des Mines...), companies or associations of researchers have been created, as in the UTC, 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. 
At the University of Technology of Compiègne (UTC), our association of researchers GRADIENT had become sufficiently professionalized to be subject, after a legal battle with the department concerned, to corporate income tax .
I'm talking about GRADIENT to the past because at the UTC this association was closed... For some years now the Universities have all had to fall in line, we didn't want to see a head sticking out anymore and GRADIENT has been replaced by UTEAM, a company that the university management wanted to turn into a 100% Subsidiary of the public structure...Now that this structure depends completely on the UTC management, if one day it accumulates deficits, it will have to disappear or we will have to pay it back with our taxes! This has cost the taxpayer the amount of the shares of the company and will cost again if this company needs one day a capital contribution. 
One of the UTC President did not like the associative structure which gave too much independence to the teachers and to the "different labs"... The turnover of contract research has fallen dramatically in the UTC environment. Often in France we know very well how to throw away the bath water and the baby with it!
 
Research with industry delays the advancement of researchers : The Ministry of Research must review the evaluation methods used by researchers to encourage them to work for and with industry. And the evaluation commissions must be composed by always introducing a certain amount of multidisciplinarity, no doubt a few research directors from private companies and the president of the university who must have an active role in promotions. 
It is also important to judge new ideas objectively. Even in Giordano Bruno's time during the Renaissance, it was difficult to launch new ideas. In scientific circles, it is easier to obtain agreement for a publication at the centre of a discipline than for a publication that cuts across disciplines. It is extremely difficult to question the knowledge of researchers in the field . 
When François Fillon was Minister for Research, the heads of the labs of major establishments working on innovation, product design, design and multidisciplinarity had seen the Minister for cross-disciplinary creation. They were Robert Duchamp from ENSAM, Bernard Taravel from ISTIA, Patrick Garnier from the Ecole des Mines and Danielle Quarante from UTC. They had asked for the creation of a cross-disciplinary commission for the evaluation of researchers. There were several fairly positive meetings and then François Fillon backed down. He did not overcome the obstacle in the face of the outcry (without a strike but with friendly pressure) from certain "scientists" from "hard" disciplines. It is regrettable that there are no evaluation commissions bringing together researchers from several disciplines, as this would avoid the sectarianism of the defenders of the dominant concepts of the discipline .
 
The way in which teacher-researchers are promoted must change very quickly. The Université de Technologie de Compiègne was very innovative in 1973 when it was created, but little by little the UTC was asked to fall in line and follow a slightly more orthodox organisation. The founding President of the UTC, Guy Déniélou, would not have accepted, but the Presidents who succeeded him were not of the same temperament, so they bowed to the will of the Ministries?
For the advancement of researchers, publications should be valued, citations by other researchers of course, but also, in the same way as publications, the importance of contracts awarded and managed, the responsibilities taken on in the institution, the research staff financed by contracts awarded, and patents filed and especially exploited by industrialists (in which teachers are cited as inventors) should be valued.
A reform that deserves to be undertaken!
 
In our Western world, which generates both the unemployed and very rich hyper-consumers, reindustrialization must be built on sustainable products and processes that respect our planet. 
Universities could make their contribution to this work for the future and for society . 
But university research needs to be more connected to life and the industrial world. It must work on concrete subjects that drive industry forward and even on technology to understand where the world can go. Research is not only fundamental, there is nothing dishonourable about it and "all applied research can find a social utility"! 
But research must not be enslaved to industry and at the same time all obstacles, psychological and temporal, must be removed, because these two worlds do not know each other, do not work at the same pace and must be tamed through successive contacts.
Legal obstacles must also be removed so that both parties are winners and contracts are offered quickly. Research in France must also be structured to draft balanced contracts with industry!
The money generated by research must be a comfort for researchers, allowing lab members to travel without filling out forms in triplicate so that they do not operate solely on our tax money, meet new people, give lectures and attend seminars to maintain this positive flow.
Finally, researchers working for industry must not be penalized for their careers and the research products and results recognized by the review panels must not be only publications .

 

 

(1) Philippe Mallein who received the Cristal d'Or from the CNRS for the CAUTIC method (Conception Assistée par l'Usage) called RANA Non Applicable Applied Research.
(2) Daniel Thomas who was one of the pioneers of UTC died in 2014.
 
 

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