On August 30 and 31, the University of Montpellier hosted the annual conference of vice presidents in charge of research and innovation in French universities. The 2022 edition of the conference focused on the theme of transitions and brought together more than 180 participants. Jacques Mercier, vice-president in charge of research at the UM, looks back on this event. 

What is the objective of this annual conference?
For seven or eight years now, all the VPs of Research and Innovation have been invited to meet to report on what has happened during the year. It is an opportunity to discuss current reforms and to exchange views on current research issues, both among ourselves and with representatives of major research organizations.

How many people participate in this event?
We had more than 180 participants which is a real success. We welcomed VPs from all over France, including Reunion Island and Polynesia. The CEOs of the main research organizations* were also present, as was Manuel Tunon de Lara, the President of France Université (formerly the Conference of University Presidents).

The R3SUP network organized its symposium the day before. Who does it bring together?
The R3SUP network brings together research administrative managers. They are the equivalent of Anne Bancel, who heads the UM's Research and Doctoral Studies Department (DRED). This network usually meets one day before or one day after and also participates in the VP Research and Innovation conference.

The organizing city changes every year, why was it interesting for the University of Montpellier to host it this year?
We have already been to Toulouse, Bordeaux, Lille and Paris, so it was logical for Montpellier to be one of these major university cities. This underlines our attractiveness, our dynamism and our visibility in a year when the UM has embarked on major transitions. We also took advantage of the opportunity to highlight our own themes.

The theme chosen for this edition was "French research in transitions". So transitions can refer to many things, starting with the ecological transition I suppose?
The University of Montpellier being very well placed in ecology, we could not miss this dimension. Research must continue its efforts to integrate this transition into its daily life, whether it be the management of waste, consumables or fluids, the use of plastics, recycling, etc.

You were talking about current topics, what's new for this year 2021-2022?
The research landscape is in full evolution. The research programming law that was put in place by the previous government, under the mandate of Frédérique Vidal, is moving quite a bit thanks to the allocation of new resources for research. There are ongoing discussions on the role that universities should play with research organizations, there are reforms concerning the doctorate in particular, there is the appearance of junior professorships...

What does the doctoral reform consist of?
First of all, there was the revaluation of the remuneration of doctoral contracts and more recently there is a new decree which came out almost at the same time as the conference and which provides for the appearance of a doctoral contract under private law. This means that the doctorate can now be carried out in private companies. It is still a little early to talk about the modalities but we are working on it.

What are junior professorships?
These are new contracts allowing the recruitment of a teacher-researcher for a period of 3 to 6 years and who, after an evaluation, may be appointed professor.

This is something very interesting for careers, especially since they also have a budget of 120,000 euros to set up a research laboratory.

Research in transition is also an evolution towards more interdisciplinarity. Is it a new way of working for researchers?
Yes, undoubtedly, and it is an extremely interesting thing that gives rise to new themes and fields. However, this must not be done at the expense of purely fundamental research. We must know how to combine the two and we must not ignore the new questions that this interdisciplinary research raises.

What does this mean?
Interdisciplinarity can sometimes make the execution of certain projects and especially their evaluation a little more complex. It must therefore be well structured in order to be able to carry it out without lowering the level of research.

Do you think that civil society expects science today to be more applied, to take up more challenges, particularly in relation to the ecological crisis?
Yes, we talk a lot about participatory science. Research and science must be in relation with society: it is an absolute necessity and moreover research has been working for a long time to bring solutions. But here again, not to the detriment of purely fundamental research which must always exist for the evolution of knowledge.

During this conference, you also talked about research in the South, why?
We are fortunate to have the IRD and CIRAD in Montpellier and to be able, with them, to position ourselves strongly on partnership research with the South. We really wanted to take advantage of this conference, and the visibility it offers us, to reaffirm our orientation in this direction.

The president also spoke about the institutional transition with the UM becoming an experimental public institution (EPE). What does this change for research?
It changes many things, of course. The perpetuation of the I-SITE Muse and its integration into the experimental public establishment has strengthened the links between the University and the research organizations and, at the same time, has brought the research communities closer together. As a former VP, I can say that the I-SITE and the transformation into an EPE have given rise to a much more intense dialogue between research organizations and actors in the research field in Montpellier.

What is the interest of such a conference for the University of Montpellier?

Such a conference allows us to affirm our attractiveness and our visibility, as I said, but this is not the main issue of this event. We VPs do not often have the opportunity to exchange with each other so easily and it is not every day that the President of France Université and the presidents and CEOs of research organizations are gathered around the same table. This gives rise to extremely rich discussions on the functioning of research and the university. But if the colleagues come for the program, they also come to share a great moment of conviviality, to allow informal exchanges, which is also essential.

*Antoine Petit for CNRS, Gilles Bloch for Inserm, Valérie Verdier and Elisabeth Clavery de Saint Martin for IRD and CIRAD, Philippe Mauguin for INRAE and Bruno Sportisse for INRIA.