Grenoble takes Giant steps towards collaboration

A grouping of research institutes aims to become Europe's answer to MIT. Matthew Reisz reports

March 11, 2010

Grenoble is a famously compact city, sometimes said to have a mountain at the end of every street.

But its size is not restricting its research ambitions, with a project under way to create a rival to the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US.

The Giant (Grenoble Innovation for Advanced New Technologies) campus is intended to address what Thierry Grange, dean of the Grenoble School of Management, described as the danger that Europe can seem "great at creating ideas, but not at creating jobs".

The large sums of public money poured into Grenoble since 1958, largely for nuclear research, have created what Mr Grange called "a huge industrial asset".

The city is home to a National Centre for Scientific Research and a branch of the Centre for Atomic Energy, as well as outstations of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility and the Laue-Langevin Institute, an international research centre producing high-flux neutron beams.

Although these institutions have been "good neighbours for 20 to 30 years", Adrienne Perves, head of international relations for Giant, said the new innovation campus was intended to build further synergies around Grenoble's world-class expertise in new energy sources, bio-, micro- and nanotechnology.

Alongside fundamental research into the nature of matter, she said, "we have developed key patented innovations such as infra-red imaging, computerised systems for transport, power electronics and, in partnership with STMicroelectronics, the chips you find in Nokia mobile phones".

Giant brings together Grenoble's five research institutions, two universities and the School of Management. Although it was set up in 2006, the project has recently moved up a gear after funding was secured for a 220-hectare, polygonal "scientific peninsula" at the city's heart.

This will include housing, labs, meeting places, a tramline, a hydroelectric power station, teaching, research and leisure facilities.

Only one of about 15 major new buildings - which will total around 150,000 sq m - has so far been completed. When finished in 2015, the campus should bring together 8,000 researchers and 10,000 students, who are expected to generate 5,000 publications and 350 patents a year.

Park life and more

William Stirling, senior scientific expert on the Giant team responsible for joint scientific projects, said the venture had a wide variety of international influences.

"We looked at science parks, science campuses and innovation campuses - all the places where big universities are merged with research labs as part of major urban developments," he said.

Notable European influences include the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in southwest Germany.

The key challenge of the project is to create opportunities for cross-fertilisation without destroying the very things that have made the individual institutions successful.

"Giant is not an attempt to impose a centralised Stalinist pattern on Grenoble," Professor Stirling said. "Different labs should retain their own character and traditions.

"But we are looking at what you have to do to bring them together, beyond sticking people side by side and having monthly directors' meetings. Development plans are now discussed in common, so they neither duplicate nor negate each other."

In areas such as nanoelectronics, he said he foresaw huge opportunities for collaborative research.

Mr Grange added that the Giant brand would help to "make visible" Grenoble's many areas of research excellence and "act as a magnet to attract new companies".

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