$5.7 Billion Paris Science Campus Poised To Rival MIT Now Under Fire: Here's Why


The grandeur a science super-campus in France is trying to achieve by 2020 hit a snag after government auditors said it lacks strategy and governance.

Incorporated in 2014, the University of Paris-Saclay aims to give birth to Europe's multi-disciplinary university to equal, if not surpass, top American universities, such as MIT and Harvard.

The auditors, in a report published on Feb. 8, saw differently. The Paris-Saclay grouping of higher educational and research institutions is said to be without "real coherence and international visibility."

The Court of Auditors, in Chapter III of its annual report, maintained that the science cluster's road to the future has remained ambiguous.

Transforming Saclay Plateau Into 'Something Grander'

The Saclay plateau was home to a technological cluster made up of private and public research facilities in 2004. Known as the French Silicon Valley where 25,000 people worked, including thousands of scientists, the university attracted several global companies and more than 200 small- and medium-size firms.

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy saw the potential of the Saclay plateau to become the French MIT to boost the country's poor ranking among universities worldwide.

Sarkozy's idea was to put in one place the different academic and research institutions into one hub. The plan required the transfer of a number of elite schools to Saclay plateau where thousands of student and researchers moved into what is now known as the University of Paris-Saclay.

Since 2014, the university has become a federation of universities, 10 big institutions for higher education, and seven national research institutions. These institutions, which were previously autonomous and enjoyed a certain degree of prestige, included the University of Paris-Orsay, Ecole Polytechnique, Ecole Normale Superieure de Cachan, HEC Business School, laboratories of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, and the Commissarat a l'Energie Atomique.

With the super-campus on Saclay, the French government is poised to redeem the country's name among prestigious universities around the world.

'The Risk Of Diluting A Great Ambition'

The auditors, however, said there are risks that the university in Saclay would only be a grouping of academic and research institutions as they noted the lack of "real coherence and international visibility."

Public spending went into the Paris-Saclay science cluster but without visible results so far. A total of $5.7 billion has been allocated for the project.

The auditors concluded that there is a real risk of "diluting a great ambition" despite the huge investment of public funds.

Gilles Bloch, president of the university, did not agree with the conclusion of the Court of Auditors.

Calling it "totally false," Bloch claimed that steps had already been taken to address the situation after last year's government order.

Last year, the French Senate report pointed out that the institutions at the plateau had destroyed the collective image of one super science campus by trying to maintain their own individual identity. Funding to the project would be cut off unless the situation improved.

Bloch said an ad hoc committee had already been created to draw up proposals to strengthen links in research, teaching, and human resources.

The Kink In The Link

Bloch admitted the work to arrive at a cohesive multi-disciplinary campus is not easy. At least two big schools specializing in engineering, one of which is the well-known Ecole Polytechnique, do not subscribe to the idea of closer links with their partners in the plateau.

The university should be more like the Silicon Valley than an MIT, Polytechnique President Jacques Biot explained. The valley needs no real governance, he added.

Bloch, amid challenges, maintained that the university must fulfill its mandate to be the country's science and technology cluster.

He is still hopeful that everything will fall into place once the proposal is drawn up. The government will decide by December whether the university deserves funding and the label of "excellence initiative."

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