Professor Michael Cates: My five-year term as chairman of ESPCI Paris International Scientific Committee

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From November 25th to 27th, the International Scientific Committee is gathering at ESPCI Paris. Academic and industrial members of world reknown institutions are meeting with ESPCI staff to evaluate the research and education policy of the school. We met with the Chairman of the ISC, Professor Michael Cates, the 19th Lucasian Professor at the University Of Cambridge. He shares a five-years term at the head of the ISC at the school, and the challenges to come.

The ISC Members, from left to the right : Prof. Krzysztof Matyjaszewski, Prof. Hui Cao, Dr Eric Carreel, Dr Helen Routh, Dr Armand Ajdari, Prof. Laura H. Greene, Prof. Michael Cates, Prof. Jian Ping Gong. Also Members: Prof. Ben Feringa, and Prof. Bruno Weber. This was the last ISC for Laura Greene, Armand Ajdari, Eric Careel, Jian Ping Gong and for the President: Mike Cates.

Q. What is the role of the ISC at ESPCI?

The job of ISC members is to assist and advise the Director of the School in any way they can, especially in staff recruitment, teaching programmes, and research planning. We also help in the selection of a new Director when the post falls vacant. The ISC includes senior scientists from around the world, who can offer a global perspective on ESPCI’s activities, and benchmark against other leading institutions worldwide, advising the City of Paris and other stakeholders about how the School is regarded internationally. We have consistently been able to affirm that ESPCI’s global reputation and visibility far outweighs its size, and that its training programmes and graduates are exceptional.

Q. What do you think about the evolution of the school since you became chairman of the ISC?

During my five years in the role, ESPCI has gone from strength to strength. It is more integrated now with other Paris institutions, but has not sacrificed its independence, nor the distinctive character of the training it offers. There is more mobility of students, with most if not all now undertaking secondments to other laboratories in academia or industry during their degrees, and also more project work and teamwork built into their schedule. The school has become more outward looking, with a broader recruitment to its programmes, and improved communications with students, alumni and the public alike. There has been an increase in the foundation and incubation of high-tech spinouts, and the opening of several new laboratories including large joint ventures such as the Institut Pierre-Gilles de Gennes. The driving force in all cases has come from within ESPCI itself. This is thanks to strong leadership by J.-F. Joanny and now Vincent Croquette; their colleagues in the Administration; and the vision and energy of ESPCI’s entire community of scientists and engineers. The members of the ISC admire these recent developments very much.

Q. What are ESPCI challenges in the next years according to you?

Globally, ESPCI’s concept of a scientist-engineer, who can focus on genuine technological innovation led by the latest scientific understanding, is needed now more than ever. This is particularly true given the problems that the world now faces, most especially climate change induced by human activity. Despite clear and ever louder warnings from the scientific community from the 1970s onwards, political progress has been so slow that very serious damage has already been done to global ecosystems and the essential services they provide to humanity. To address these problems, and halt further damage caused by fossil fuel use, we need rapid technological innovation based on solid scientific understanding. ESPCI’s graduates are very well placed to help provide the technological and scientific leadership we now need.

At an institutional level, the biggest challenge ahead for ESPCI is the building programme. The ISC has consistently supported the goal for a complete refreshment of the School’s physical infrastructure while retaining its historic location in the centre of Paris. It is very exciting to see this now happening, but we are all conscious of the logistic challenges that it will pose for the next several years. There will be some sacrifices by staff and students alike, but the cause is essential to the continuing long-term success of ESPCI.

Q. What will you remember of these five years?

It has been a pleasure and a privilege to Chair the ISC for the past five years. Doing so has allowed me to start many new friendships and rekindle old ones, both within ESPCI itself and among ISC members. It has also been exciting to see so much great science during the lab reviews we have conducted, the enthusiasm and innovation of the teaching staff, and the brilliance and vitality of the students.

As a final remark, I am very excited by the fact that my successor as the next ISC Chairman will be Professor Steven Chu of Stanford University. Professor Chu won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997 and later served as the US Secretary of Energy from 2009-2013. His combination of scientific brilliance and political skill is extremely rare, and he has an amazing amount to offer in helping the School realize its potential in future years.

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