Two poles

With twenty five candles on their cake, the Grand Duchy´s public research centres are looking ahead to the next quarter century.

Source : Delano
Publication date : 05/01/2012


Luxembourg's system of public research centres, or CRPs, is set to mark its 25th anniversary of operations this July with a bang: two of the three CRPs announced plans to merge last month.

"The idea is really to have one plus one make three," says Fernand Reinig, director at the CRP Gabriel Lippmann, which currently employs about 250 total staff. "The main goal of the CRPs is applied oriented research towards socio-economic actor needs," he explains. "We try to solve problems for our partners. That can be industry--here in Luxembourg, in the Greater Region or abroad--or public bodies who need our help to fulfil their mission."

While it has significant projects in environmental science and ICT, Lippmann is perhaps best known for its work in materials analysis--where it works with companies like ArcelorMittal, Ceratizit, Goodyear and Novalis, as well as major universities in Europe and the US--to examine the surface of materials at the atomic level. "That's very important because today industry applies 'functionalisation' to surfaces," such as adding solar protection to glass or protecting structures against moisture, Reinig says.

Indeed the CRP Henri Tudor similarly has a strong presence in the materials domain. One of its earliest projects was taking over the steel testing labs of what is now ArcelorMittal, says Jean Pol Michel, business development director at the centre, which has about 500 staff overall.

It is also well known for environmental studies and for its vocational master's degree programmes--in IT security, IT service innovation, logistics and quality management--which focus on transferring the latest skills to active workers. With many overlapping fields of expertise, "synergy is one of the motivations for this fusion. The objective is to reach critical mass."

"But another very positive point is the clarification of the role of the CRP and the university," he continues. Luxembourg will have "two pillars for research and innovation," Michel says. The university will focus on basic research and academic training, while the CRP will be "more focused on very applied research and economic innovation."

Reinig agrees that "putting our forces together is a first step towards a more mid-term vision of the Luxembourg research landscape." He says that today "we have four CRPs and one university. We should have a more coordinated, more focused research landscape with two poles."

He adds: "I hope the other CRP and CEPS [which conducts research in the economic, political and social sciences] will join-in in several years, but of course that depends on their boards of directors to decide when they are ready to join forces. We think that in 2019--when everyone will be here in Belval [at the "science city" being constructed that will eventually house the CRPs, as well as most of the university] we won't have three or four different institutions, but only one big [CRP] that would be a kind of sparring partner for big universities and for the country. That is the idea: to gain more visibility and to put together big teams. "


In fact, the day of the announcement several media outlets reported that the third CRP would "be part of the merger and move to Belval; that's obviously wrong," states Dr. Jean-Claude Schmit, chief of the CRP-Sante, which has about 300 employees and works exclusively in the health and biomedical spheres. So, aside from health IT systems, there is little overlap between his CRP and the two others, he says.

Among CRP-Sante's other work, "we have built up competencies in clinical investigative research, which has really been a huge success," Schmit reports. "This research brings basic knowledge which we develop in laboratories to clinical application; you could say to the patient's bedside." Schmit explains that "you need this kind of translational research if you really want to implement personalised medicine," which was named as a national economic development goal in 2008.

In addition, "we do not have a public health research institute in Luxembourg in the classical sense, as in other European countries. So we are partially in charge of public health research," such as surveillance, examining risk factors and collating health statistics.

These days "we already collaborate a lot with, for example, the University of Luxembourg and the IBBL," the Grand Duchy's biobank. "The aim is not to repeat things, not to acquire expensive equipment twice." Beyond that, for example, "for the IBBL, CRP Santé provides data collection services and obtaining informed consent of patients. The biobank provides us with services storing and analysing samples. So the collaboration can be really close."

Regarding potential fusion with other public bodies, Schmit says, "I'm absolutely open to discussing further steps, but this needs discussion." And although not participating in the merger with Lippmann and Tudor, Schmit says CRP-Santé is in the midst of its own reorganisation, "which is a good thing really, because we have a law that is 25 years old and no longer adapted to the current situation."


Following the merger of Lippmann and Tudor, the combined CRP will have more than 800 scientists among its ranks from two different organisational cultures. "This merger is a complex project, which is not frequently done in the public field," admits Reinig. The motivation is "not to reduce the budget, because the Luxembourg government continues to develop public research in a dynamic way." He also concedes that many of the details still need to be worked out. "It will be bottom up, not top down." In fact, "we don't know how the new CRP will be" structured. Several working groups are being set up among scientists but also the administrative and technical support staff to determine how the new teams will be set up.

Michel expects the bill required to start the legal process of merging the CRPs will be presented to the Chamber of Deputies this autumn and hopes it could be passed by the middle of next year. He also expects, with the economy minister's support, that the two boards of directors will have the same composition following the next nomination cycle.

Yet the first initial steps have already been taken. Lippmann is currently recruiting for a new materials department head, Reining reveals. As this is one area the two CRPs hope will gain the most synergies, "we're already doing it in close collaboration with Tudor."

Aaron Grunwald


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