Transatlantic cooperation: three CNRS medal winners tell us about their international collaborations

From left to right: Lucie Etienne (PHOTO SIDACTION), Eleni Diamanti (PHOTO P. KITMACHER/SORBONNE UNIVERSITE), Céline Spector, all three CNRS 2024 medal winners.

International scientific collaborations are essential for sharing knowledge, diversifying perspectives and collectively tackling global challenges. CNRS 2024 medal winners Lucie Etienne, Céline Spector, and Eleni Diamanti, explained how their collaborations with Canada and the United States impact their research activities and are fundamental to the advancement of scientific results in their respective fields.

Lucie Etienne, CNRS Senior Researcher at the Centre International de Recherche en Infectiologie1 (CIRI) and CNRS Bronze Medal 2024 for her work on the functional evolution of virus-host interactions, is the French coordinator of a CNRS RAPIDvBAT International Research Project (IRP) with the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Arizona.

Eleni Diamanti, CNRS Senior Researcher at the LIP6 laboratory2 and CNRS 2024 Silver medal winner for her contribution to the field of quantum communication and cryptography, is a member of the steering committee of the CAFQA network (Canada-France Quantum Alliance) and co-directs a project funded by the Twin Research Scholars program between the CNRS and the University of Toronto.

Céline Spector, Professor of Philosophy at Sorbonne University, member of the “Sciences, Normes, Démocratie3 ” laboratory and lecturer at the College of Europe in Bruges. Awarded the 2024 CNRS Silver Medal for her work on French Enlightenment philosophy and its contemporary political legacy, she co-supervised a thesis as part of the Joint PhD Program between the CNRS and the University of Chicago.

The winning researchers, from different academic disciplines and backgrounds, all attribute high added value to bilateral collaboration between French and international research teams.

Céline Spector has spent several years in the USA – first as a French lecturer at Stanford University, then as a Mellon Visiting Scholar and Lurcy Visiting Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago – as well as short stays inspired by conferences and symposia. During her travels, she forged strong working (and friendly) relationships with her American counterparts, particularly those she met at the University of Chicago.

The professor cites these experiences and encounters as pioneering in her drive to establish transatlantic collaboration related to her research discipline. These immersive professional stays inspired her to involve her colleagues at the University of Chicago in a joint thesis project, and then to perpetuate this flourishing collaboration at various levels thereafter:

It was these professional and personal relationships with [mes collègues de l’Université de Chicago] Robert Morrissey, Paul Cheney, Jennifer Pitts, John McCormick, Larry Norman and others that led me to build the “Joint Call” project for a PhD that was laureate of the CNRS and the University of Chicago in 2020, of which one of my PhD students, Hugo Toudic, went on to be tenured […]. He has now been recruited as Associate Director of the International Institute at the University of Chicago in Paris, which invites us to further deepen our collaboration. Today, the Pôle “Europe des Lumières” of Sorbonne University’s Faculty of Letters, which I oversee with Christophe Martin, has invited the Director of this new center, Robert Morrissey, to join its Scientific Advisory Board. […] ».

On a larger scale, her testimony illustrates the quality of the relationship between the CNRS and the University of Chicago – two institutions whose history of joint work is distinguished by a significant number of multidisciplinary co-publications. The International Research Center Discovery created in 2022 between the CNRS and the University of Chicago represents the culmination of this bilateral cooperation, and is the result of a series of individual collaborations like those undertaken by Céline Spector.

Researcher Eleni Diamanti initiated her structuring cooperation with Canadian teams after obtaining funding for a bilateral France-Canada research project (2009). The success of this project has encouraged her to maintain long-term working relationships with her colleagues in Waterloo, Ottawa and Calgary. Today, these transatlantic links contribute to the synergy at work within the Canada-France Quantum Alliance – CAFQA research network.

Like Céline Spector, the success of these bilateral partnerships motivates her to envisage joint scientific work over the long term: ” We also hope to establish cooperation between our Paris center and equivalent centers in Canada, in particular the Institute for Quantum Computing (University of Waterloo) ». Lucie Etienne, like Céline Spector, developed an interest in bilateral collaborations with the United States during a first immersive experience in the country. Her post-doctorate at the Fred Hutch Center in Seattle, Washington, a “highly collaborative and scientifically exceptional and diverse” research center, was crucial. This experience enabled her to forge lasting, trusting relationships with researchers at the center, and to experience research as an international adventure. Today, as part of the RAPIDvBAT international research project, the working relationships between the three research teams4 are particularly close. Lucie Etienne also sees her medal as strong recognition from all the contributors to her work, which she considers intrinsically collective and collaborative“.

One of the considerable benefits of bilateral collaboration is the complementarity provided by foreign teams, sometimes with different methods, thinking and cultural practices.

Eleni Diamanti fully appreciates the scientific benefits of international cooperation, as it “gives rise to extremely fruitful synergies“. She also considers the unique perspective provided by Canadian researchers on subjects related to her research discipline to be essential. Early in her career, working with Canadian teams enabled her to identify advanced Canadian expertise on specific topics, and “to appreciate the richness and innovativeness of the Canadian quantum science community“. Through their joint project funded by the Twin Research Scholars program between the CNRS and the University of Toronto, Eleni Diamanti and her Canadian colleague Li Qian have the opportunity to combine the complementary knowledge and expertise of their respective teams. “Li Qian has experimental expertise in hyperintrication that will be very interesting to study for the quantum communication protocols we’re developing in my team », notes the researcher.

For Céline Spector, the creation of solid working relationships with foreign researchers and academics from different disciplines (history, political science, French) has enabled her to see her own research discipline, philosophy through a French prism, in relation to other social sciences, and thus to refine her method. She believes it is essential to open up to different perspectives and related disciplines, to diversify intellectual and scientific viewpoints. To illustrate her point, she recounts that “exposure to otherness also means measuring the way in which gender studies, post-colonial or decolonial studies more or less penetrate the academy, and knowing how to form one’s own ideas about the best way to take them into account“.

She adds that comparing ideas and theories with peers in other countries highlights the strengths and weaknesses of each perspective. This confrontation puts their approaches into perspective.

To illustrate her point, the philosopher cites the example of Montesquieu, author of the decisive work De l’esprit des lois and a key thinker in the history of political philosophy. As a result, he is less studied in France, his country of origin, than in the United States, Italy, Brazil or Argentina, countries where his work is considered resolutely revolutionary in the way we understand politics and the formation of the laws that govern people and their societies.

In the same vein, she also values bilateral collaboration, insofar as it enables young researchers and apprentice philosophers to take a step back. The mobility of young researchers allows them to “vary their perspectives, avoid rigid approaches, and meet colleagues and students who work according to other maxims“. Decentering oneself and recognizing the relativity of academic standards are essential prerequisites for conducting rigorous research, and are habits to be cultivated right from the start of one’s career.

Lucie Etienne seems to share Céline Spector’s vision. During her post-doctorate in Seattle, she became close to researchers from a wide range of disciplines, and believes that “complementary expertise” is essential to all research work. While for her, « (inter)national collaborations are absolutely key and indissociable » in the progress of her group’s work, collaborations with the United States in particular are resolutely complementary in that they provide ” data and expertise that were lacking at national level, and which enabled us to answer questions that would otherwise have remained inaccessible ». These collaborations also have the advantage of scientifically stimulating the work of research teams, and enabling doctoral and post-doctoral mobility, which is beneficial both scientifically and professionally, in laboratories on both sides of the Atlantic.

The journeys of the three medal winners highlight the fruitful nature of international collaborative research on different time scales. In the short term, the scientific success of a collaboration between teams with complementary expertise stimulates the emergence of potential new projects. “These cooperations […] sometimes guide the choice of future projects,” emphasizes Eleni Diamanti.

In the long term, the growing number of international collaborations is encouraging the establishment of institutional agreements between the teams involved. The CNRS has structuring tools that build on existing collaborative links between CNRS-affiliated teams and foreign teams to support, facilitate and perpetuate scientific collaboration between the researchers involved. These partnerships can in turn give rise to new partnership opportunities. Lucie Etienne’s journey is testimony to this virtuous cycle. « First of all, we received support from the France-Berkeley Fund and doctoral fellowships from the IRC CNRS-University of Arizona. This initial support was decisive in building a project on the scale of a CNRS IRP, » explains the infectious diseases researcher. « We’re going to evolve by involving even more members in each of our teams, but also by extending to other teams in France and the United States whose expertise goes beyond that of our collaboration to enable us to ask other questions. »

What’s more, whether they involve international research projects, networks, laboratories or centers, these institutional partnerships have the potential to encourage support from foreign partners, or to demonstrate to research funding agencies the relevance of a joint call for projects in the theme concerned. On the subject of the CAFQA network, of which she is a member of the steering committee, Eleni Diamanti is “certain that it will provide numerous opportunities to consolidate collaborations already underway or encourage new ones.

Finally, cooperation also has the advantage of circulating scientific information faster and further afield. An international project is a bridge between different scientific communities. The resulting discoveries or breakthroughs thus benefit from greater exposure. “Our international collaborations give my team’s results wide visibility and recognition,” observes Eleni Diamanti.

  1. CNRS/INSERM/ENS de Lyon/Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1.  ↩︎
  2. CNRS/Sorbonne Université. ↩︎
  3. CNRS/Sorbonne Université. ↩︎
  4. CIRI en France, David Enard à l’Université d’Arizona et Peter Sudmant à l’Université de Californie à Berkeley aux Etats-Unis.  ↩︎

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