Universities must not shirk public role, says Sorbonne president

Newly elected Sorbonne president Nathalie Drach-Temam says scholars will not back away from controversial subjects and that she has no desire to profit from British academia’s Brexit woes

三月 11, 2022
Nathalie Drach-Teman, president of Sorbonne University
Source: Laurent Ardhuin

With protests continuing against vaccine passports in France, many university leaders might quietly advise their academics to steer clear of polarised public debates on Covid – particularly those who might defend the science behind some of Europe’s tightest restrictions.

But Nathalie Drach-Temam, who was elected Sorbonne University’s president in December, insisted this was not the moment for French academia to retreat on important but controversial issues. “This is such an important role for French universities – our researchers have been very prominent throughout the pandemic, explaining the science about vaccines, combating fake news – and it has sometimes been difficult,” Professor Drach-Temam told Times Higher Education.

“Maybe it’s not intuitive to be so present on the public stage but part of Sorbonne’s role is to play a part in educating French society about science and research.”

That wish for the Sorbonne – created through the 2018 merger of Pierre and Marie Curie University (UPMC), France’s largest medical and science university, with humanities and arts specialist Paris-Sorbonne University (Paris IV) – to become more public-facing was central to Professor Drach-Temam’s election, with the computer science professor keen to expand the institution’s already extensive suite of citizen science projects.

Its Science Together initiative contains a range of projects in which botanists, historians, musicians and forensic scientists engage the public, often helping to move research forward. “Our Patients’ University brings patients directly into degree courses and they can contribute their data to research studies, which is very effective because it is bringing people to participate in science, not just telling them about results,” said Professor Drach-Temam.

Beyond this agenda, there is also work to ensure the two constituencies of UPMC and Paris IV – which had about 35,000 and 24,000 students respectively – operate meaningfully together. “It can be difficult because these were two institutions with their own traditions, operating in different domains,” said Professor Drach-Temam. “It can be hard for each side to understand the vocabulary or ways of working of science and art, but there have been many successes.”

Among them are the nine transdisciplinary research institutions and 11 cross-university research initiatives established over the past three years, bringing together experts from different fields, she said. “We have our Institute for Environmental Transition, which has researchers from the hard sciences and social sciences to address climate change and biodiversity, while in health we have engineers, health economists, scientists and AI specialists working together,” Professor Drach-Temam added.

Those innovations may be rather hidden from the university’s 52,000 students but other benefits from the merger are far more discernible, not least the popular four-year double major degree, or shorter major-minor degrees, which allow undergraduates to study both science and arts subjects.

“Students can study chemistry and history, or other mixed domains together, which wasn’t the case before – it’s still not something you see at many other universities in France,” Professor Drach-Temam continued. Aside from the new degree offers, the system gives students the chance to switch lanes mid-course and stay in study, rather than dropping out, she explained, with the Sorbonne having far lower attrition rates than other institutions, where historically the majority of students have either left or switched courses in their first year.

With the UK and Switzerland still excluded from Horizon Europe, some have suggested that Paris – for centuries a centre of scientific excellence which continues to churn out Nobel prizewinners, most recently gene-editing pioneer and UPMC graduate Emmanuelle Charpentier – will become increasingly pivotal for European research and maybe even host many of the British or Swiss researchers unable to take up European Union funding. Did Professor Drach-Temam see Brexit and Switzerland’s troubles as an opportunity for her institution, placed 88th in the latest THE World University Rankings, to poach talent?

“If an excellent researcher wanted to come to the Sorbonne, we would certainly look at hiring them, but taking people for this reason is not an objective – we are much more interested in collaborating with researchers in our partner institutions than competing with them like this,” insisted Professor Drach-Temam.

“We are very disappointed that UK university partners cannot join Horizon Europe as we have many great collaborations with them, as we do with the Swiss, and we want to keep these alliances for as long as we can,” she said. “We want to focus on the science, not this kind of politics.”



Print headline: Don’t retreat, says new Sorbonne head



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