Industrial research chairs : the key to headway in research

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Put in place by industrial partners, and working in close co-operation with them, the industrial research chairs enable the school to strengthen its competences in the growing sector of research while at the same time increasing its profile. A strategic tool therefore, for the school.

In the long history of company-school relations, setting up industrial research chairs is quite a recent development, in France at least, as well as a major step forwards. "Industrial research chairs provide a very effective framework, whereby a research unit is established or a team is strengthened, supported by industrial funding and benefiting from the favourable conditions provided by the endowment fund, highlights Anne Beauval, Head of the Ecole des Mines de Nantes. In this way it is possible to look at cetain issues which have an impact in the medium to long term. We are at the heart of the "research-oriented" approach. And this is a win-win situation for the two partners, the company and the school alike".

Over the last few years the school has therefore undertaken an industrial research chair program. The way it works is simple : the industrial partner and the school undertake a five year research program, on an emerging theme chosen together, sponsored by company funding to the tune of 1.5 million Euros.
So what exactly happens with a research chair ? The key aim is research. "We are working on long term radionuclides diffusion through rock, using simulation experiments and molecular modelling, explains Bernd Grambow, Head of the Subatech laboratory and holder of the research chair "Storage and management of nuclear waste ". This is an area of research which touches on materials science, physics, and chemistry as well as societal issues. It concerns the issue of public safety, with implications over a timeframe of thousands of years : Andra (1) will put forward a project, for 2015 concerning a storage site which is due to open towards 2025". The program will employ a team of five full time researchers, including an engineer responsible for chemical analysis, a PhD student and two post-docs.


Benefits for both partners


The research chairs enhance the development of the organizations who fund the program. This is of vital importance at a time when there are state buget limitations, which means that higher education needs to find alternative fund sources -  in particular sponsorship from companies. "While that is true, the key aim is something else entirely, points out Bernd Grambow. It enables the school to accumulate knowledge and to build - or expand - a research team. In this way, in 2010, we brought in a world-famous professor fom the USA, to work on the " storaage" research program, (A. Kalinichev see video). He brought us his expertise, his contacts, and his presence at international.conferences. He contributes to the visibility of the school, both in France and abroad. He also teaches on the master's courses." The research chair scheme enables the school to evolve, to promote its reputation for scientific excellence...and even to communicate. This in turn will lead to the setting up of new partnerships and projects.The "storage" program has already enabled the Mines de Nantes  to win a number of contracts for similar projects.
The company, on the other hand, benefits from the work undertaken on future-oriented issues, directly related to its industry – even if the results obtained during the program have to be made public. And even if the repercussions are not necessarily immediate." For the "storage" research program, we need to think along a time-scale of about twenty years, estimates Bernd Grambow. The forecasts made by Andra concerning storage behaviour actually go beyond a thousand years. Whereas for Daher, they will see a return on investment after only a few years, even less in some areas ." In all cases, the industral partner is at the cutting edge of technical advances, in very specialised areas. This way they can stay one step ahead of the competition, and boost innovation. Thanks to this research program, Daher, for example, was able to branch out into a strategic area, enhancing its position and reputation.
On a wider scale, the links between the industrial and academia, improves their understanding of how things work, enables them to identify key skills and needs, and eventually to set up new partnerships. And all this at a reasonable cost – especially as a private company can deduct the cost of 60 % of its investment from its tax returns - up to 5 5%  of its turnover. It is hardly surprising then, that more and more large groups are funding research chairs, although with a limited number of academic partners.
In short it's a "win-win" situation all round. Assuming that the research program is  properly set up, on both sides. "What we have here is a co-construction approach, highlights Catherine de Charette, Acting Head of corporate relations, and Head of Endowment funds. We are answerable to these companies – as much scientifically as financially. Running industrial research programs is a new profession in higher education."


Future research programs


The Ecole des Mines de Nantes is now planning to establish other research chairs – again focusing on areas of excellence. "For the moment, we're working on three, which are all  related to nuclear energy, because we have long-standing relations with large industrial groups in the sector, observes Anne Beauval. There are two others in the pipe-line, concerning computer science, and environmental science. We may go even further – for example into energy, or robotics." The school has already put together a list of possible target-companies, who could be potential partners.
However, an industrial research chair cannot be set up overnight. "First, you have to identify its direction, decide what can be offered, then formalise the offer... A great deal of work has to be done beforehand, says Catherine de Charette. Geographical location, and future strategic development are also part of the equation. Signing up to the "stockage" research program was the result of ten years of collaboration."  In any case, the research chairs at the Ecole des Mines de Nantes consolidate what we can offer companies. A comprehensive offer, ranging from a simple one-off consultancy contract, to a long term partnership involving the appointment of a PhD student on a research program, with everything between the two. We have the means to fulfil all the needs of industrial companies.

    (1)    National Agency for the management of nuclear waste


Industrial research chairs at the Mines de Nantes


-"Storage and management of nuclear waste".This research chair was set up at the beginning of 2009 with : l'Andra (1), Areva, EDF and FEED (European Foundation for the Energy of Tomorrow ). It has resulted, at the request of the three industrial partners, in the creation of a Research Master.

-the "Daher" research chair, signed in september 2010, is a joint initiative between the European equipment supplier Daher, Mines Paris Tech and the Mines de Nantes.. This is one of the rare examples of a chair funded not by a large group, but rather by an ETI (a mid-cap company).

-"RESOH" a research chair devoted to sub-contracting and joint venture relations, the most recent (March 2012), also a partnership with three industial groups : DCNS, the IRSN (Institute for Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety) et Areva. In time, other partners may become involved.(To know more go to A LA LOUPE)

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