Institut ExposUM: "Creating a strong sense of community

Better identifying and analyzing external environmental factors capable of affecting human health is the aim of the Institut ExposUM, launched on Tuesday March 14. One year after securing funding of €46.4 million over 8 years from the State and the Region, the team is presenting an ambitious program: to bring together the entire Montpellier scientific community around a common theme by financing research programs and new training facilities.

" With this launch, what we want to do is firstly announce the program for the coming months and years, but above all, we want to create a strong sense of community around the ExposUM Institute by communicating the values on which it is based," explains Charlotte Boullé, researcher in the TransVIHMI team and member of the ExposUM management committee, or "codir". A name chosen in reference to the concept of exposome, which designates " all exposures to external and environmental factors (food, pollution, infectious agents, etc.) capable of affecting human health", explains Eric Delaporte, professor of infectious diseases and also a member of the "codir", which comprises four members in all: Charlotte Boullé, Eric Delaporte, as well as Mircea Sofonea, epidemiologist at PCCEI and Aurélie Binot, anthropologist-agronomist at Astre.

A unifying theme

Let's go back a few months. In November 2021, the University of Montpellier and its partners* learned that they had won, along with ExposUM, the "Excellences sous toutes ses formes" call for projects under the future investment program (PIA4). The project received 23.2 million euros in funding from the French government, doubled by the Occitanie Region, for a total of 46.4 million euros over eight years, for a project designed to mobilize all the University's strengths. It's an extremely unifying theme in Montpellier," continues Eric Delaporte, " it will enable us to cross a large number of themes but also multiple disciplines such as oncology, nutrition, ecology, chemistry, social sciences ..."

One year on, and after countless meetings, visios, messages on various collaborative platforms and the like, it's an ambitious program that the promoters of the Institut ExposUM are presenting. Research With its focus on research, science-society interaction and training, each axis of the project, as Charlotte Boullé reminds us, is underpinned by a set of values. " Interdiciplinarity, a strong focus on developing countries, an integrated approach to One Health, and interaction with the players in society are just some of the features that form the backbone of the Institute. A joint, multidisciplinary Scientific and Strategic Orientation Council (COSS), chaired by Jacques Mercier, Vice-President of the University of Montpellier in charge of research, guides its implementation.

First call for projects

On December 9, ExposUM launched its very first call for projects (AAP). With a budget of 2 million euros, the first theme is the emerging exposome. The winners will receive funding of 100 to 300,000 euros to develop their projects over 1 to 3 years. Each year, a new call for projects will be launched," continues Charlotte Boullé. We have chosen to operate by AAP in the interests of transparency vis-à-vis the research community, and have put in place a selection process that is intended to be as clear as possible." Applicants have until April 7 to submit their applications, before the COER (Conseil d'orientation et d'évaluation de la recherche, also a joint, multi-disciplinary body set up for this purpose) and then the COSS make their decisions in July, for a launch in September.

Another major research initiative is the creation of "ExposUM fellowships ", offering highly attractive research conditions. "In other words, the researcher will have a budget to cover his or her operating costs and to finance a payroll of up to three people," explains the researcher. Six positions should be created in this way.

Doctoral nexus

Training is also at the heart of ExposUM's intentions, with the announcement of funding for 60 theses over eight years as part of the nexus doctoral program. "Today, we realize that interdisciplinarity is not yet sufficiently valued. We want to encourage future generations of researchers to embrace this modality by training them in it from the doctoral level onwards, with the creation of these doctoral nexus programs", explains Charlotte Boullé. Once again, calls for projects will be launched. To respond, researchers will have to join forces to lead networks of three or four doctoral students from different disciplines, but linked by a common theme. "We are taking into account the additional workload involved in this interdisciplinarity by granting each PhD student funding for four years instead of the usual three. Each will also receive 20,000 euros over 4 years to cover the material costs of this collective work."

Over the course of the year, ExposUM should also help doctoral and post-doctoral students to finance internship and operating allowances, so that they can surround themselves with master's students and support them as they familiarize themselves with supervision, " an important dimension in a research career for which we are not always well prepared", notes the researcher. Last but not least, because the project is not only geared towards the South, but is also open to the international scene, ExposUM aims to promote training abroad. A lot of researchers do informal training abroad when they travel," says Charlotte Boullé. The UM abroad scheme is designed to promote them as part of the University of Montpellier's off-site teaching, with small funding envelopes of 10 to 15,000 euros."

Scientific events

To reinforce this interdisciplinary vision, cross-disciplinary scientific events will be offered to members of the ExposUM research community, to support them in their thinking at the crossroads of disciplines with very different theoretical and methodological frameworks. " This effort will be reflected in the emergence of new interdisciplinary themes, notably crossing the perspectives of medical, environmental and social sciences, both at the level of future AAPs and doctoral nexuses," declares Aurélie Binot, co-director of the "Interaction" axis.

Scientific leadership is at the heart of the Institute's approach, and it intends to take up another challenge: to gain a better understanding of the exposure problems faced by associations, the private sector and political players, so as to " translate them for researchers and incubate 'trans-disciplinary' actions that mobilize scientists and social players around shared challenges", concludes Aurélie Binot.

* Cirad, CNRS, Ifremer, INRAe, Inria, Inserm, IRD, ENSCM, Institut Agro, CHU Montpellier, ICM, Région Occitanie.