Universities must not shirk their public role, says Sorbonne president

As protests continue against vaccine passports in France, many university leaders could quietly advise their academics to avoid polarized public debates about Covid – especially those who could defend the science behind some of the strictest restrictions of Europe.

But Nathalie Drach-Temam, who was elected president of Sorbonne University in December, insisted that now was not the time for French academia to retreat on important but controversial issues. “It’s such an important role for French universities – our researchers have been very important throughout the pandemic, explaining vaccine science, fighting fake news – and it has been difficult at times,” said the Professor Drach-Temam. Times Higher Education.

“It may not be intuitive to be so present in the public arena, but part of the role of the Sorbonne is to play a role in educating French society in science and research.”

This wish for the Sorbonne – created by the merger in 2018 of the Pierre and Marie Curie University (UPMC), the largest medical and scientific university in France, with the Paris-Sorbonne University (Paris IV), specialist in human sciences and the arts – becoming more open to the public was central to the election of Professor Drach-Temam, the computer science professor keen to expand the institution’s already extensive suite of citizen science projects.

Its Science Together initiative contains a series of projects in which botanists, historians, musicians and forensic scientists engage the public, often helping to advance research. “Our patients’ University brings patients right into the curriculum and they can contribute their data to research studies, which is very effective because it gets people involved in science, not just telling them about the results” , said Professor Drach-Temam.

Beyond this agenda, there is also work to ensure that the two constituencies of UPMC and Paris IV – which had around 35,000 and 24,000 students respectively – work together in a meaningful way. “It can be difficult because they were two institutions with their own traditions, operating in different fields,” Professor Drach-Temam said. “It can be difficult for either party to understand the vocabulary or working methods of science and art, but there have been many successes.”

Among them are the nine transdisciplinary research institutions and 11 inter-university research initiatives established over the past three years, bringing together experts from different fields, she said. “We have our Institute for Ecological Transition, which has researchers in hard sciences and social sciences to address climate change and biodiversity, while in health we have engineers, health economists, scientists and AI specialists working together,” Professor Drach-Temam added.

These innovations may be rather hidden from the university’s 52,000 students, but other benefits of the merger are much more noticeable, including the popular four-year dual degree, or shorter major-minor degrees, which allow students undergraduates to study both scientific and artistic subjects. .

“Students can study chemistry and history together, or other mixed fields, which was not the case before – this is still not something you see in many other universities in France “, Professor Drach-Temam continued. Along with new degree offerings, the system gives students the option to switch tracks mid-term and continue their studies, rather than drop out, she explained, with the Sorbonne having well-endowed attrition rates. lower than other institutions, where historically the majority of students left or changed courses during their first year.

With the UK and Switzerland still excluded from Horizon Europe, some have suggested that Paris – for centuries a center of scientific excellence that continues to produce Nobel laureates, most recently a pioneer in gene editing and UPMC graduate Emmanuelle Charpentier – would increasingly become a pivot for Europe. research and perhaps even accommodate many British or Swiss researchers who are unable to benefit from European Union funding. Did Professor Drach-Temam see Brexit and Switzerland’s difficulties as an opportunity for her institution, ranked 88th in the last THE The world ranking of universities, to poach talent?

“If an excellent researcher wanted to come to the Sorbonne, we would certainly consider hiring them, but taking people for this reason is not an objective – we are much more interested in collaborating with researchers from our partner institutions than competing with them. like that. insisted Professor Drach-Temam.

“We are very disappointed that the British university partners cannot join Horizon Europe because we have many collaborations with them, as we do with the Swiss, and we want to maintain these alliances for as long as possible,” she said. declared. “We want to focus on the science, not this kind of politics.”

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