Life at INSMI #2 - Jean-Stéphane Dhersin, Deputy Scientific Director of INSMI


Jean-Stéphane Dhersin serves as the Deputy Scientific Director at INSMI, overseeing Europe and International Relations. Here, he shares his experiences.

You joined the National Institute of Mathematical Sciences and their Interactions on September 1, 2018. How did you come to be involved with this institute?

Pascal Auscher, the then-director of INSMI, approached me to succeed Sinnou David in the role of Deputy Scientific Director (DAS), specifically handling Europe and international affairs.

I am a university professor at Sorbonne Paris Nord University. At that time, I was already involved in international projects at the university level, including educational initiatives with Africa, China, and Vietnam. I also served as the director of an International Associated Laboratory that CNRS operated in Hanoi. The connections between French and Vietnamese mathematicians are robust, built on several decades of collaborative efforts supported by CNRS. These relationships were further strengthened following the Fields Medal awarded to Ngo Bao Chau in 2010. Ngo had previously been a CNRS research fellow at the Analyse, Géométrie et Applications Laboratory in 1998, and later became a professor at the Orsay Mathematics Laboratory in 2004, before moving to the United States. In 2020, he was appointed to the College de France's chair of automorphic forms.

What are your responsibilities as the Deputy Scientific Director "in charge of international affairs"?

My job title encompasses two main areas: Europe and international relations. This aligns with one of INSMI's missions, "to develop international initiatives in its area of expertise, particularly by contributing to the establishment of a European Research Area in Mathematics." In these tasks, I am ably supported by Céline Montibeller, Head of Partnership and International Projects, and Sarah Morin, Research Officer. A significant number of activities are conducted in collaboration with the CNRS Directorate for Europe and International Relations (DEI).

The majority of INSMI's international efforts are devoted to building long-term collaborations with our partners.

INSMI has access to a range of tools offered by CNRS. Among these are the International Research Laboratories (IRL), which share the same legal structure as CNRS’s Mixed Research Units (UMR): they are joint units, one of whose guardianship belongs to a foreign university or organization, and the laboratory itself is physically hosted by this foreign partner. They must be evaluated and renewed every five years. INSMI oversees about ten of these IRLs. Unlike UMRs, where staff assignments are “permanent,” assignments to IRLs are temporary. This applies both to CNRS personnel, who are assigned for a set period and then return to their unit in France, and to teaching and research staff, who may be hosted on secondment, generally for six months or a year. Just as Alessandra Sarti (DAS in charge of research units and researchers) does for UMRs at the institute, I handle the monitoring of these IRLs (their creation, renewal, and relationships with partners) and the personnel assigned to them.

CNRS has other mechanisms that INSMI utilizes for the long-term structuring of these international collaborations. INSMI thus supports certain international collaborations through International Research Networks (IRN), which can be compared to national Thematic Networks (formerly known as GDR). This support facilitates the organization of workshops, seminars, and thematic schools by French and foreign partners, with the goal of structuring a scientific community across several countries. IRNs can also take the form of geographical networks that structure the entirety of the French mathematical community's collaborations with a target country. The IRN AFRIMATHS has been a particularly useful instrument in structuring relations between France and sub-Saharan African countries. These IRNs have a duration of five years and are potentially renewable. INSMI also supports long-term projects, the International Research Projects (IRP), which involve a smaller number of participants working on a specific project, once again for a duration of five years.

In addition to these long-term projects, there are smaller-scale calls for projects known as International Emerging Actions (IEA). These are small projects aimed at exploring new research fields and establishing new international partnerships through short-term missions, organizing working meetings, and initiating preliminary joint research work around a shared scientific project. These actions last for two years. Every year, INSMI funds about fifteen of them.

Beyond these CNRS structures, we also participate in initiatives targeting developing countries through CIMPA, and we develop international activities on French soil with IHP and CIRM.

Your role also includes a European dimension. Can you tell us more about that?

This part falls under the mission of "building the European Research Community." The European Union has a European program for research and innovation called Horizon Europe, which is the ninth framework program. It started in 2021 and will run for seven years. The goal is to strengthen the scientific and technological foundations of the Union, boost its competitiveness (including its industry), realize the Union's strategic policy priorities, and contribute to addressing global challenges, including the sustainable development goals. With a budget of €95.5 billion, it demonstrates the EU's commitment to this program.

The majority of Horizon Europe’s funding is allocated to collaborative projects. CNRS offers support in assembling these complex collaborative projects, especially through its European Project Engineers who can assist in various phases of preparation, proposal submission, contract negotiation, and the initial project launch. Since these projects often require a societal and industrial application within a short timeframe, mathematics is rarely the central theme, and it can sometimes be challenging to find projects involving mathematicians.

For funding basic research, one option is to apply for grants from the European Research Council (ERC), which represents 17% of the framework program's budget and funds projects based on scientific excellence. While assembling projects for ERC grants is simpler than for collaborative projects, it is still a substantial amount of work. Drawing on experts from the community, former laureates, and former jury members, INSMI offers assistance in reviewing the written part of the application and, more importantly, in preparing candidates who are selected for an interview with the jury. We are particularly pleased to see a high number of laureates from French laboratories in recent years. This underscores the scientific excellence of our labs, and it's worth noting that the ERC program also represents a significant source of funding for these labs: France leads the way in mathematics funding with 106 ERC grants, followed by the United Kingdom (88) and Germany (69).

Of course, building Europe also involves engaging with communities from other EU countries. We interact with part of this community through networks and activities of the European Mathematical Society (EMS), for example, during ERCOM meetings or meetings with funding agencies for mathematical research from other European countries.

What topic are you most passionate about?

I would say that for me, the most interesting aspect of administering research at the international level lies in the International Research Laboratories (IRLs). These venues have a substantial impact on the research conducted by the staff we send, and the scientific discussions with partners are truly captivating. They also foster strong connections between France and the host countries.

Our international presence also affects France's appeal to young foreign researchers. I mentioned earlier the recruitment of Ngo Bau Chau as a Research Scientist, but we could also talk about Arthur Avila, the 2014 Fields Medalist, who was initially at IMPA, which hosts the IRL we have in Rio, and who was recruited to CNRS. French mathematics laboratories manage to attract hundreds of young researchers from all over the world, who come here to spend part of their careers. They are a strength for us, both in terms of the quality of their research and the strong relationships they often drive with their home countries.

Another particularly interesting aspect is supporting the submission of ERC projects. On one hand, it generally marks the culmination of a thoroughly developed scientific project, but on the other hand, the support relies on numerous researchers whom we approach, and who are always ready to help. This mobilization is a testament to an exceptionally cohesive community.

What are the topics awaiting you for this new academic year?

We are truly expanding at the international level. In its performance objectives contract, CNRS placed a priority on relations with Africa. A series of initiatives at both the DEI (Directorate Europe and International) and Insmi (National Institute of Mathematical Sciences and their Interactions) levels have developed these relationships. We previously discussed the creation of the AFRIMATH IRN (International Research Network). The DEI has funded about fifteen mathematics projects, whether through the Support Mechanism for Collaborations with Sub-Saharan Africa, support for the CIRM (International Centre for Mathematical Meetings) on the Research in Residence CIRM-AIMS project, or obtaining funding for a Joint Research Project which will allow Ludovic Rifford, a Professor at the Jean Alexandre Dieudonné Laboratory in Nice, to spend a quarter each year for four years at an AIMS (African Institute for Mathematical Sciences) center.

On January 1, 2023, we transformed our former International Associated Laboratory with Vietnam into an IRL (International Research Laboratory). Located in Hanoi, it builds on both the historical partner, the Institute of Mathematics of the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology (VAST), and the Vietnamese Institute for Advanced Study in Mathematics (VIASM), directed by Ngo Bao Chau.

Another particularly exciting project is the creation of the AHGT-Rims IRN in Kyoto after five years of preparatory work with Japan, followed in September by the opening of the FJ-LMI IRL in Tokyo, in collaboration with the University of Tokyo, one of CNRS's preferred partners.

Finally, in January 2024, we plan to launch an IRL with the University of the Republic in Montevideo, building on the LIA (International Associated Laboratory) we had with Uruguay.