As part of a week devoted to the EU, Inria Paris is shining a spotlight on the experience of its researchers. We caught up with Laurent Romary, a member of the Almanach team and a specialist in computational linguistics, to ask him about his 25-year career and the collaborative EU projects he's worked on.
Why have you chosen to take part in so many EU projects as opposed to other forms of research funding?
Laurent Romary: It’s part of my research culture; I was first involved in such a project right back at the start of my career, in 1994. I gradually got into the EU way of doing things, coming to understand how these projects operate and what is expected of you in terms of administrative and scientific constraints. I have stayed within this model because it has enabled me to build up a network, meaning it is now natural for myself and my partners to respond to EU calls for projects. Consortia come together over time because the ideas are clear and everyone stays up to date with the latest developments.
How are collaborative EU projects put together?
LR: Ideas for EU projects tend to take root six months in advance. Ideally, meetings are organised in order to get all of the planned partners around the table to discuss ideas and to divide up tasks. Chemistry is very important: if one partner doesn’t pull their weight at the time of the proposition being put together, then that will have a knock-on effect on everyone else. This is another reason why we always rely on the same networks.
Nearly half of all of the projects I’ve been involved in have been put together with support from a professional (a consultant, an agency, etc.), who were responsible for the management side of the project. However, in order to employ such services, you need to have the budget available. In this sense, Inria has always had a reputation for being a partner that was very comfortable with EU projects. There is a good level of support when it comes to both administrative and financial aspects, as well as human resources.
A favourite project: LIRICS
“I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to assemble an ISO (International Organisation for Standardisation) committee on the standardisation of linguistic resources. It was necessary to attract people beyond the idea of this committee, and an EU call for projects came along which matched, almost to the letter, the work programme we had set ourselves. Each partner was able to immediately find their place, and there was a real dynamic which I particularly liked.”
What role do you most like taking on within these research projects?
LR: I enjoy having responsibility over a working group or “work package”, which involves coordinating a small project inside a larger project. What I find interesting about this role is being able to bring a dynamic for a specific topic and feeling that everyone is moving in the same direction.
I have also been involved for a long time in setting up and then managing DARIAH, the EU’s Digital Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities, which was set up specifically for the digital humanities. The European Union launches calls for projects specifically for this type of structure, which has enabled me to participate in a whole host of EU projects and to gradually build a long-term instrument for the digital humanities.
What are the advantages of these EU projects?
LR: The programmes put forward by bodies such as DARIAH are targeted calls, with a 60 to 70% chance of being granted funding. There is also a clear difference in terms of the visibility of results when compared to ANR projects (the French National Research Agency). On top of publications, the reports produced in the context of a programme are read by the scientific community, owing to the fact that they give an accurate representation of the current state of play in research.
Collaborating with EU partners also helps you to open your mind. It's a culture in its own right. You often find yourself in situations where you're having to deal with multiple cultures and multiple languages. Finally, you quickly realise that you are not unique or indispensable - there are other teams producing great work on the same topics as us. It’s all highly rewarding.
What is different about collaborative research in an EU context?
LR: There’s very limited political coordination on the part of the European Union, meaning the projects are very open. That said, there is no real scientific monitoring. Given the level of funding that is awarded, it would be useful to have a point of contact to provide feedback on priorities identified in different scientific fields. Nevertheless, the situation has improved over the past five or six years. Another thing that is different about EU research projects is that there is a lot of admin, making them a bit more difficult than smaller, more local projects, but we get a lot out of that.
You were called upon to take part in a number of H2020 projects at the same time. How were you able to handle all of that?
15-20 EU projects
5 projects coordinated
Participation period: 1994 – 2020
LR: In order to tackle all of these projects at the same time, it was necessary to make sure that there was consistency in terms of the fields of participation for each of them. When that happened to me, I was working on data standardisation, extraction and modelling for each project. We were able to develop a dynamic within the Almanach team, which supported these projects. That’s what we’re trying to do today, the aim being to involve all of the different members of the team.