"A university must be multidisciplinary to make a name for itself"
Alain Fuchs, an EPFL graduate in chemical engineering, is a leading figure in France’s research landscape. He served as president of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) from 2010 until 2017, when he was named president of Université PSL (Paris Sciences & Lettres).
We spoke with Fuchs about his remarkable career path and his views on Europe’s educational and research systems.
You were born in Lausanne but spent part of your childhood in Africa. What memories do you have of living there?
When I was a teenager in the 1960s, my father, who was a computer scientist, was transferred to Africa by the company he worked for. We lived in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), South Africa and Côte d’Ivoire. My schoolyears were rather chaotic due to the many different school systems I went through – but I’m not complaining. In fact, that gave me an opportunity to learn English at a very young age, at a time when most students in France and Switzerland didn’t have strong English skills. Things have changed though, and many of our students at PSL speak English quite well.
Given your Lausanne origins, was attending EPFL the obvious choice?
Not as obvious as it may seem, since when I finished my secondary education – and like many people that age – I wasn’t sure what field I wanted to go into. When my family moved back to Switzerland, I took on a series of small jobs: I worked for a bakery, a moving company, the post office and other places. But then I thought it’d probably be good for me to get a university degree, and that’s what my father wanted for me, too.
Once that decision was made, it was hard for me to enter the Swiss educational system with my foreign diplomas. To be able to apply to EPFL, I had to audit the preparatory year (CMS) program. But I stuck with it and worked hard all summer. Once I passed the EPFL entrance exam and was able to enroll, I decided to major in chemical engineering. The School didn’t offer life sciences at the time, and I wanted to stay close to biology so that I could later go to medical school, which was my initial plan.
Did you enjoy your time at EPFL? And what did you decide to do once you graduated?
Those years at EPFL were wonderful. Lausanne was brimming with university students and EPFL offered a very international environment. Many of my closest classmates were foreigners – from Vietnam, Greece and France, for example. EPFL hadn’t been a Swiss federal institute for very long but it still felt like a well-established university, thanks to its former incarnation as EPUL. And I really enjoyed my classes in chemical engineering – to the point where I gave up my idea of becoming a doctor. I was strongly influenced by some of my professors, like Prof. Javet.
Back then it was fairly easy for university graduates to find a job. I had opportunities with many companies, particularly chemical companies in Basel. But I really liked performing research, and I decided to do a PhD. I chose to attend Université Paris-Sud at Orsay – to be honest, I was attracted more by the prospect of living in Paris than by France’s research sector, which I knew very little about. But in the end it was a great experience. It also allowed me to forge ties with industry, which was important to me, although at the time some people looked down on that. Mentalities have since changed. Then when I got to run my own lab, I was able to source funding for several PhD students thanks to existing relationships with companies like Michelin and Air Liquide.
As a manager, I always keep a fundamental question in mind: Will this decision help my school’s researchers?
How did you make the transition from being a researcher to being a manager?
I still see teaching and research as my core professions. But when you head up a team, you get to see whether you enjoy things like management, planning and leadership. And it turned out I did. I had built up an extensive network over my career and opportunities came to me fairly naturally.
In 2006 I was appointed head of Chimie ParisTech-PSL. That brought me back to my roots in a way, and that’s also when I got back in touch with EPFL’s chemical engineering department to discuss degree programs and career opportunities. I felt it was essential for me to stay involved in research even as I led Chimie ParisTech-PSL, so I still managed a research group. That helped me keep a fundamental question in mind – “Will this decision help my school’s researchers?” – when I was called on to make budgeting and management decisions.
You were named president of CNRS, France’s leading research institute, in 2010. What was it like at the helm of that organization?
I initially didn’t plan on applying for the job. In fact, I didn’t even know it was open. I got a phone call from the office of Valérie Pécresse, who was France’s Minister of Higher Education and Research at the time, asking me to apply for the position. The person I spoke with was Philippe Gillet, her chief of staff. Many people thought Gillet would be appointed the next president of CNRS, but he had other plans – in fact, he ended up working at EPFL under Patrick Aebischer. Speaking with Gillet about the position, I was intrigued by the challenge and decided to apply, and was selected. With a budget of some €2.6 billion, CNRS was much bigger than any organization I had already managed. And I was much more exposed to the media than I had been before.
France’s university landscape was highly fragmented in the late 1990s. There were many different universities and institutes, each focused on a different area – unlike in Switzerland, for example, where the number of entities has remained more manageable. So one of the aims in 2010 was to associate CNRS more closely with these different schools and help make French research more visible on the international stage. I was really driven by this goal, and our efforts eventually led to the creation of several large university consortiums, including PSL. I agreed to a second term as president of CNRS in 2014. That’s when conditions got more challenging, mainly because the funding we received started to fall short.
Research funding is a problem for countries around the world, but I do think Switzerland and Germany tend to be more consistent in this area than France.
What were the consequences of this lack of funding?
The overall amount we received stayed the same, but our expenses had increased. Our payroll costs in particular had grown regularly, meaning we had less and less to allocate to research. I was forced to reduce headcount through attrition – by not replacing people who retired or whose employment contracts ended – in order to have enough money for research. That was not a pleasant task.
When I left CNRS in 2017, I clearly stated that if France doesn’t allocate more funding to research, its research sector won’t be able to keep up. Not many people listened to me at the time but, since then, indicators have shown that French papers are indeed cited less often now than they were in the past.
Do you think the lack of research funding is a problem only in France, or in other countries too?
Research funding is a problem for countries around the world, but I do think Switzerland and Germany tend to be more consistent in this area than France. If you look at overall figures, the amount allocated to R&D worldwide has risen substantially – it’s probably doubled over the past 20 years. That’s mainly due to competition among developed countries, which now realize that innovation will be key to keeping their economies growing. But the increase in R&D spending is skewed towards Asia, as countries like China, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore are putting in more effort than western countries are. We’re not doing too badly in Europe, especially since the UK is still a part of European research initiatives, but there was a period during which France didn’t take the steps it needed to.
The PSL consortium you now lead includes a number of universities along with three research institutes – a setup that’s similar to what we have at EPFL with the ETH Domain. What benefits do you find with this kind of grouping?
When PSL was created ten years ago, the aim was to group universities together to address the fragmentation I mentioned earlier. A university must be multidisciplinary to make a name for itself globally. At the time, there were very few French universities in the global rankings.
Today PSL has nearly a dozen schools and institutes spanning a wide range of fields. Our members include École Normale Supérieure-PSL, Dauphine-PSL, Mines Paris-PSL, and Conservatoire National Supérieur d'Art Dramatique-PSL, to name just a few. Each one manages its own budget, human resources, areas of specialization and brand image. But we pool our efforts in certain areas: we issue joint degrees, carry out joint communications internationally and conduct joint research. Our goal was to build a university that covers many different disciplines and offers a level of excellence on par with its global peers. This type of system already existed in other countries but was new to France.
EPFL is a good example of how universities can evolve successfully.
Today PSL is ranked as one of the top universities worldwide that are less than 50 years old. EPFL used to be at the top of this ranking too, until we turned 50 in 2019. What are the next milestones you hope to reach with PSL?
Today PSL is known as a collegiate university. We’re one of the few French universities to make it into the top 50 of the major global rankings. These universities provide a glimpse of where France’s system of higher education is heading.
According to the European University Association, there are around 20,000 universities worldwide. So for us, making it into the top 20 or even the top 50 is no mean feat – especially when you consider the limited resources we have. And being in these league tables makes PSL more attractive to students and researchers from other countries.
I think EPFL is a good example of how universities can evolve successfully, in part through its decisions to place a heavy emphasis on research and on synergies between research and training, and to limit the number of students. At PSL, we hope to add new fields of study, such as medicine. Sometimes people ask me what it will take to reach the level of Harvard or MIT, for instance, but for now we can’t compete with the deep pockets of privately-funded universities in the US and UK.
In your leadership roles, you must spend a great deal of time on management and high-level meetings. Do you miss your first calling of teaching and research?
I’ve tried to keep up my research activities to some extent throughout my career. I’ve had the good fortune of working with extraordinary scientists and engineers who have helped me stay in touch with the research world.
I also really enjoy teaching, especially when I have a motivated group of students. It’s incredibly gratifying when you see their eyes light up. In fact, because I missed teaching so much, I recently got back into it by giving classes in our generalist Sustainability Sciences program. This program aims to train the next generation of leaders on the scientific challenges related to climate change. At PSL, we believe it’s our duty to give students a solid scientific foundation on the economic, social and environmental transitions. Today there’s a lot of talk about these issues in the press but too few people really understand the underlying science. How is the Earth’s temperature measured? What is a greenhouse gas? Many people don’t know the answer to these questions.
You received an EPFL Alumni Award in 2011. Have you been back to EPFL since, and do you still have contacts at our School?
I was in contact with Patrick Aebischer and his vice president, Philippe Gillet, whom I mentioned earlier. I also know Martin Vetterli quite well – we spoke regularly when he was the president of the SNSF’s National Research Council. He agreed to sit on PSL’s Strategic Steering Committee, which we’re delighted about. I sometimes come back to the Lausanne campus, although less frequently in recent years. And I keep my Alumni Award right here in front of me in my office!