From Inria’s Sabbatical programme to a strategic partnership
It started out as a run-of-the-mill collaboration: in December 2018, Benjamin Guedj, a machine learning researcher and member of the Modal project team at the Inria Lille - Nord Europe research centre, was put on a year-long placement at University College London as part of Inria’s Sabbatical programme (see inset), which is coordinated by the International Relations Department. But in February 2019, another project began to emerge. “I contacted management at the Inria Lille centre and Inria’s general management to explore a more ambitious and more strategic partnership”, says Benjamin Guedj. The stars aligned. On one hand, Inria was seeking to pursue its international strategy, the aim of which is to develop targeted collaborative partnerships. UCL, one of the world's top ten universities (see inset), ticked all the boxes. On the other hand, Inria did not have any official agreements at a national level with institutions in the UK.
UCL - a heavyweight among British universities
This British institution was founded in 1826 and is a leading light in higher education and research, ranking among the top 10 universities in the world. One figure gives an indication of the university's standing: 34, which is the number of Nobel Prize winners affiliated with UCL. UCL is also a particularly progressive university: it was the first university to accept students regardless of their religion, as well as women, and this same open-mindedness continues to guide its current policy.
UCL's geographical proximity, particularly to the Inria Lille - Nord Europe centre, was another advantage. “In the current context, with Brexit, organisations in Britain are obviously seeking to maintain partnerships with their European counterparts”, says Cécile Vigouroux, Inria’s director of international relations. As a result, Benjamin Guedj's proposal went down well on both sides of the Channel and the project developed quickly, in close collaboration with Inria's international relations department.
Multiple joint publications
In December 2019, Inria and UCL signed a framework agreement, The Inria London Programme. A year down the line, Benjamin Guedj has surrounded himself with a joint Inria-UCL team, based at the university in London. The team is made up of around ten or so people and has already produced 21 papers. 11 of these have been published, including some at the biggest conferences in artificial intelligence and machine learning, such as NeurIPS (Neural Information Processing Systems).
As part of Inria's partnership with UCL, there is also an invitation programme, which Benjamin Guedj has taken advantage of in order to book out fifteen offices within the brand new UCL Centre for Artificial Intelligence. These will be used by Inria researchers for international research, lasting anything from a few weeks to several months. Finally, through The Inria London Programme, Benjamin Guedj has been named “local chair” for Colt 2022 (Computational Learning Theory). Set to be held in London in the summer of 2022, this is a major conference in the field of machine learning, and should help to boost the visibility of the project.
Increasing the bandwidth between Inria and the UK
But The Inria London Programme has its sights set further and is advancing on two fronts. The first will involve mobilising UCL and Inria researchers as they seek to move into a higher gear. An official launch (which will be virtual because of the health crisis) has been planned for early 2021.
Then, at some point during the first half of 2021, a first workshop will be held in order to pair up researchers from the two partner institutions. “UCL covers all of the disciplines that Inria researchers deal with”, explains Benjamin Guedj. “The short-term objective is to form new collaborative partnerships between different teams on subjects other than AI in order to increase the “bandwidth” between Inria and UCL.”
Including other organisations in the partnership
The second major area for development is including other British research organisations. “That’s why the programme is called Inria London and not Inria UCL”, explains Cécile Vigouroux. Although progress has been slowed by Covid-19, discussions are ongoing with other universities and institutes in London, including most notably The Alan Turing Institute. “We’ve never had such an ambitious partnership with the UK before, and so we're learning as we go. But if, after two years, we have been able to establish other collaborations aside from the one with my team, with dozens of co-signed scientific articles, I would consider that a success”, says Benjamin Guedj.
Inria's Sabbatical programme
The aim of this programme, which is coordinated by the International Relations Department, is to encourage Inria researchers to work abroad, giving them the opportunity to spend six to twelve months within a research institution elsewhere in the world in order to strengthen ties and develop collaborative partnerships.
The International Relations Department, meanwhile, is considering introducing new mechanisms, including financial support, for this type of project, and is squarely behind The Inria London Programme: “There has been a lot of support at a national level, but this is primarily a ‘bottom-up’ network that is being created, through the engagement of researchers”, explains Cécile Vigouroux. Indeed, it is the latter who will help to expand, to breathe life into and to transform this network, which will serve as inspiration for future strategic Inria partnerships at an international level.