Lorraine University of excellence : a very strong regional foothold

Publish on 16/01/2020
In January 2016, Lorraine University of Excellence (LUE) received the I-SITE label, rewarding the partnership-based voluntarist approach it has adopted for over a decade. Sylvain Petitjean presents the challenges and advances of a programme described as “a global engineering initiative”.

How did the Lorraine University of Excellence programme come into being?

Sylvain Petitjean : "The University of Lorraine has a very unique organisation in the French and European academic landscape. It is one of the rare French universities to bring together - within one establishment - the classic faculties and a significant number of engineering 'grandes écoles', thereby going beyond the usual duality of the French system. Moreover, the Lorraine site also brings together major public research stakeholders - CNRS, INRA, INSERM, the CHRU and Inria - who, with the University of Lorraine, have been used to working together for a long time. Ten years ago we even equipped ourselves with a coordination body that meets every month. By taking part in the “Initiatives of Excellence” (IDEX) call for projects as part of the Investments for the Future programme, we wanted to give a new impetus to this collective dynamic. Although the first attempt did not achieve the expected results, our efforts finally paid off during the first wave of the following call for projects, finalised in 2016. This call for projects introduced a second level to the system with the I-SITEs (Initiatives for Science, Innovation, Territories and Economy) - universities that add value to assets on the same scientific level as the IDEX, with a more limited thematic spectrum and a very strong regional foothold. Strengthened by the integration of AgroParisTech and Georgia Tech Lorraine onto its site, the Lorraine University of Excellence programme is today one of the nine certified I-SITE programmes, and we are the only ones to have obtained the maximum score on all of the criteria!"

What are the main challenges of the LUE programme?

S.P : "The aim of our initiative is to use the expertise of all of the partners for the benefit of six major societal, economic and ecological challenges: trust in the digital world, control of the entire materials value chain, sustainable management of natural resources and the environment, development of energies of the future and support with energy transition, engineering to serve healthcare and ageing and, finally, economic intelligence and knowledge engineering. In order to achieve this goal we will need to deploy all dimensions of engineering, in a systemic sense, by linking together research and training, initial and continuing training, the multidisciplinary dynamic and cross-fertilisation with the region's entrepreneurial fabric. With this in mind, we have built a “toolbox” benefiting from a number of operational programmes. All of them are currently either launched or being rolled-out, like CSTI+ dedicated to scientific culture and participative science, SME Booster focussing on innovative SMEs, Mirabelle+ to develop interdisciplinarity between laboratories and Widen Horizons, whose aim is to enable researchers to get out of their environment thanks to stays abroad and work placements in companies. Another leading challenge for LUE is to develop the “Grande Région” by strengthening cross-border relations with the Saar region and Luxembourg. Moreover, joint actions have already begun on the “trust in digital technology” component."

What is the objective of the IMPACT programme, which is presented as LUE's flagship initiative?

S.P : "The aim of IMPACT is to identify targeted research issues and to bring about projects with a high scientific added-value for the benefit of one or several of the programme's six main socio-economic themes. Each of these projects will be deployed over four years and will receive a budget of around 2.5 million Euros, to which potential contributions from partners will be added, bearing in mind that LUE's total annual budget is 8.5 million Euros. Several IMPACT projects have already been launched: OLKi (Open Language and Knowledge for Citizens, in the field of language and knowledge engineering), Digitrust (trust in digital technology), Geenage (healthcare and ageing) and ULHyS, whose aim is to bring together research actions on hydrogen energy."

What is Inria's involvement in the different LUE initiatives?

S.P : "Several of our teams are actively involved in the projects developed within the framework of LUE's six challenges. We are naturally very present on the subject of trust in digital technology, which lies at the heart of our centre's research activities. For example, RESIST provides its expertise on network security questions and PESTO on the verification of security protocols. Our high security computing laboratory (LHS) is also called upon to assist with experiments and manipulations of a sensitive nature. In the field of language and knowledge engineering, MULTISPEECH focuses on automatic language processing and ORPAILLEUR on data mining. For their part, BIGS (biostatistics), LARSEN (assistance robotics) and NEUROSYS (computational neurosciences) are involved in joint projects with the regional university hospital CHRU Nancy. Moreover, MFX - a team currently being structured around problems linked to additive manufacturing - will be at the centre of an exploratory IMPACT project dedicated to the manufacturing of orthopaedic braces using 3D printing, with researchers from the materials sector. Besides the research teams, other Inria collaborators are participating in the LUE dynamic, for example as part of the SME Booster programme or the Future Leader scheme dedicated to the support of ERC applications in particular. Finally, as director of the Inria Nancy-Grand Est centre, I sit on the programme's executive board, which brings together the representatives of all of the founder members around steering, programming and resource allocation issues."

How can we know if LUE pays off? What are the criteria for success?

S.P : "All of the IDEX/I-SITE winners have to go through a probation period. For our programme, this lasts four years, which takes us to 2020. By then, we need to have progressed on several points. Among the indicators from the dashboard we have developed are, notably, our position in international rankings of engineering schools, such as those managed by the universities of Shanghai and Leiden, and the number of PhD students and ERC grants. We will also be following the development of international training, the progression of the number of start-ups in the country and the evolution of funding provided by economic partners. In 2016, as I mentioned earlier, we obtained the maximum score for all of the I-SITE certification criteria. It is something to be proud of, but it also a responsibility! Today, however, I am very confident in our capacity to collectively develop the leadership of our Lorraine site and successfully secure LUE's future..".