“We’re operating on a bit of a tight schedule,” says Minh-Hà Pham, head of the Science and Technology Department at the French Embassy in the United States. Her office is one of the entities involved in handling the dossiers of researchers and students who responded to French President Emmanuel Macron’s call on the “Make The Planet Great Again” website, launched on June 1 to bring scientists working on the environment and climate to France.
In the United States, the first country targeted by the presidential appeal, the French administration had to roll up its sleeves to examine the files, contact the candidates to ask for clarification, and guide them through the application process. “We redistributed the tasks, and mobilized an international volunteer force on the issue. With the strength we have, five or six people have spent their time working on this issue,” says Minh-Hà Pham, who points out that his office itself has handled 400 cases.
The Science Department of the Embassy is only one of the actors involved in the application process. While he was in charge of “short stay” projects (one year maximum) such as doctoral students or post-docs, the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York teams handled applications for undergraduate students.
In France, the CNRS took charge of the files of researchers interested in a “long stay” of more than three years. In total, “we received 1,020 formal applications” from researchers and students in the United States, says Bénédicte de Montlaur, cultural advisor to the French Embassy.
President Macron’s call to environmental arms came after American President Donald Trump announced the US’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, which was a campaign promise. It generated an important buzz, but was received with some scepticism by several scientists who felt that it would attract mostly “junior” researchers, who were more flexible and less attentive to salary conditions. The request for scientists was accompanied by the creation of an allocation of 60 million euros from the State and the research institutions hosting these researchers.
Researchers wishing to carry out a long-term research stay form the core target of responders. In total, the CNRS received 255 eligible applications. 45% came from Americans, and 55% of people working in the United States. A first selection process resulted in the selection of 90 researchers, 62% of whom are currently working in the United States (15% of whom are French nationals working in the United States). Forty candidates have “junior” experience of less than 12 years after finishing their thesis, 50 have experience of more than 12 years, and 19% are women.
Those selected were invited to participate in the next selection phase based on a project proposal to be executed in a French laboratory. The first winners of the research grants will be announced on December 11, according to the CNRS, on the eve of the climate summit in Paris, which will bring together the signatory states of the Paris Accord. The U.S. will be largely absent from the conference. “We were surprised at the high rate of U. S. citizens and American residents who applied,” said Anne Peyroche, president of the CNRS. “The only criterion used for the selection of the 90 candidates by the CNRS was scientific excellence in a professional career,” and not their residence or nationality, she continues.
As for the Cultural Services, they have processed “nearly 500 applications” from high school students and students who want to come to France, adds Bénédicte de Montlaur. The strongest applications were directed to Campus France USA, the administrative body responsible for promoting French higher education.
Strengthening existing programs
In the U.S., the “Make Our Planet Great Again” campaign doesn’t stop at a call for scientists and their projects. More than one million euros have been allocated by Paris to expand the many existing scientific cooperation programmes between France and the U.S., particularly in the fields of climate and the environment.
One of the initiatives to benefit from this boost is the Thomas Jefferson Fund, which finances collaborations between young French and American researchers, particularly in the environmental field. “Last year we awarded nine grants out of 170 applications,” says Bénédicte de Montlaur. “We will be able to award more funding now.”
Pham also says that more Chateaubriand fellowships will be made available to applicants in the fields of energy transition, earth sciences, and climate change. These grants are intended for PhD students enrolled in an American university who are engaged in a research project with a French laboratory.