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“Sorbonne University institutes are developing academic disciplines for the future”

The latest inaugural colloquium of Opus, Sorbonne University’s Heritage Observatory (Observatoire des Patrimoines de Sorbonne Universités), was held on 17-18 October 2016. The other institutes include the Collegium Musicae, the Institute of Calculation and Data Sciences (Institut des sciences du calcul et des données), the University Institute for Health Engineering (Institut universitaire d’ingénierie en santé) and the Sorbonne University Environmental Transition Institute (Institut de la transition environnementale Sorbonne Universités). The community currently has five thematic institutes, each of which is linked to various academic displines and establishments. Why are these institutes so important? Thierry Tuot, president of Sorbonne University, answers some questions.

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Why were these institutes created?

PictureOur strategy is based on research. We are developing an international research university and our very high-level research programs enable us to provide top-quality courses. How do interdisciplinary institutions contribute to achieving this goal? The research of tomorrow will have to free itself from the traditional divisions between academic disciplines. Of course, we will only progress if we manage to keep being the best in our fields of excellence. But in the future, these will be academic disciplines that do not exist as yet and that are on the fringes of traditional academic domains. Providing researchers from different backgrounds with the opportunity to confront their knowledge and experiences with one another is the only way to help them develop. And no matter what we might believe, they have a great deal to do together. For example, we can all visualize the archeologist brushing away soil from an object, but we have difficulty connecting this to what the press calls Big Data. Nevertheless, this is exactly what our research workers are doing. A considerable amount of data is collected when a dig is conducted at a site. If you know how to use scientific calculation tools and imagery to process the data, create 3D representations of the site, test hypotheses and so on, you are developing a new academic discipline.  Sorbonne University institutes are developing the academic disciplines of the future. 

Why have these five themes been chosen in particular ?

There are without doubt other possibilities, and new institutes may even be developed at a later date. These fives themes emerged following interdisciplinary schemes financed by Sorbonne University over the past few years. The Convergence, SATS-SU programs, amongst others, created project dynamics between laboratories, training centers, domains of excellence, teams, and individuals. These institutes basically emanate from researchers’ intuition about what research will be like in the future. These five institutes are all very interdisciplinary, and are, for the most part, in direct contact with social issues; this is not a coincidence. The Institute for Environmental Transition (Institut de la transition environnementale) and the University Institute for Health Engineering (Institut universitaire d’ingénierie en santé), for example, are confronting medicine, human sciences and engineering sciences to develop technologies for such issues as aging populations and helping the aged stay in their homes. This is also the case for Opus, Sorbonne University’s Heritage Observatory (Observatoire des Patrimoines de Sorbonne Universités). Digitization, for example, will provide new ways of preserving and accessing heritage. This makes us think about our social responsibility. Preserving heritage is good, but making it accessible to the society that is conserving it is even better.

What exactly do you expect from these research institutes?

Research at Sorbonne University is, first and foremost, based on freedom. Our role as administrators is to support research workers on the path they take to help tomorrow’s research emerge. Thankfully, we do not decide what the outcome may be.  However, one thing is certain: good administration results in good research, whereas bad administration, which focuses on structures and procedures, results in a negative form of academism. So, there you have it. No official policy and no specifications. The idea is that we should not restrict research workers, but rather provide them with a free and open space. Our role is to do away with academic and administrative boundaries, so that researchers can work together without needing to request authorizations and delegations because they depend on different entities.

Does this mean that these institutes will make researchers’ lives easier?

That is why they are there. What needs to be understood is that they are not institutions. We are not creating new structures, which would mean creating new boundaries. An institute, is a strategic symbolic space – a forum, if you will – where research workers can meet to deal with their domains of excellence.  A space where there is minimal governance, such as a steering committee, a project manager to coordinate the project and an external strategic orientation committee to help set a trajectory and have a critical overview of their actions. Researchers remain in their usual academic domain, but can use this space to explore new interdisciplinary research possibilities.

Do they play a part in educational courses?

They do not play a part in educational courses, as Sorbonne University already has interdisciplinary educational tools in this respect, such as the Collège des licences, the Collège doctoral, and the Labex for master’s courses. But their research projects may lead to doctorates, which may then influence degree and master’s programs, by either helping change content or because they will make new training schemes necessary. Tomorrow, we may need to develop mixed human science and Big-Data training programs, because it may prove impossible to pursue some disciplines without integrating this new factor. This is just an example, but of course the institutes will affect educational programs and we are willing to support experimentation in this area. 

What do you think about the project to merge the UPMC and Paris-Sorbonne?

The institutes are paving the way for this merger. These spaces are designed to knock down obstacles. The logic behind the merger is exactly the same, knocking down obstacles between the UPMC and Paris-Sorbonne. It will make things a lot easier. Let’s just imagine an institute that brings together the UPMC, Paris-Sorbonne and the UTC. Today, for every Idex euro paid by the Sorbonne University structure, four accounting officers are required, a contract has to be signed with each establishment and so on. Tomorrow, by merging the UPMC and Paris-Sorbonne, we will have got rid of some of these administrative boundaries.  This is why we are merging the two establishments, so that we can improve fluidity, reduce time and money spent and use it for better things, such as our scientific programs. When the international jury chose our Idex project in 2012, it was based on the excellence of our research, not for our capacity in administrative science. By getting rid of administrative boundaries, we will consolidate our excellence. 

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