[ARTICLE] The CNRS strengthens its links with Singapore
An important delegation from France’s CNRS, headed by its Chairman and CEO Antoine Petit, visited Singapore on January 25-26. On the agenda, the launch of a massive program on artificial intelligence, meetings with Singaporean higher education and research officials, and an address to the French Chamber of Commerce.
Strengthening ties and building the future. These were the main objectives of the visit of Antoine Petit, Chairman and CEO of the CNRS to Singapore on January 25-26. With him were several members of the organisation’s management committee.
With many projects tied to the Singaporean academic and socio-economic world (see box), the CNRS has a large scientific presence in the city-state. In 2014, the CNRS Representative Office in South-East Asia and Oceania (CNRS@ASEAN) was established in Singapore. The organisation is also one of the main partners of the France-Singapore Joint Science and Innovation Committee (COSIMIX), a platform launched in 2019 to develop a common strategy for cooperation in science and technology. CNRS@CREATE, the very first CNRS subsidiary abroad, was also created that same year in Singapore, making the CNRS the first research organisation to join the CREATE international research hub, a campus that brings together renowned international players selected by the Singaporean government to strengthen and diversity the country’s R&D ecosystem.
Launching the AI of tomorrow
The DesCartes programme was born within this campus and is one of the largest collaborative projects of CNRS. With a budget of 50 million Singaporean dollars (€35 million) over 5 years, this programme is dedicated to decision-making in ‘critical urban systems’, one of the many research challenges linked to “smart cities”, which tackle a range of issues including energy consumption, traffic management or the relationship between citizen and city. This transdisciplinary subject combines mathematics, computer science, physics/engineering and human and social sciences around hybrid artificial intelligence, which is of high interest to the Singaporean government and is also part of the French government’s AI plan. “It will be very important to develop research both in the field of algorithms and technologies, and in that of human and social sciences, which represents an even greater challenge,” explained Cédric Villani, researcher in mathematics (Fields Medal 2010), member of the French Parliament and President of the French Parliamentary Office for the Evaluation of Scientific and Technological Choices, who chairs the programme’s scientific committee.
Francisco Chinesta presents the DesCartes programme during its official launch. ©CNRS
With its headquarters on the CREATE campus, DesCartes brings together 17 academic partners, including 13 French universities and ‘grandes écoles’, five industrial partners led by CNRS@CREATE, as well as the National Research Foundation of Singapore (NRF). With its 1 100 AI scientists, its dedicated supercomputer ‘Jean Zay’ and its new Centre ‘AI for Science and Science for AI’, the CNRS plays a key role. The programme is also being led by Francisco Chinesta, CNRS Silver Medalist in 2019. “The DesCartes programme is the result of numerous and meaningful exchanges on artificial intelligence between the CNRS and Singapore, which go back several years“, says Dominique Baillargeat, director of the CNRS@ASEAN Office and CNRS@CREATE. This “ambitious” project reflects the “desire to highlight CNRS’ key assets on innovation“, in the same way as the many French companies present in Singapore, with its priorities and its strong expertise, particularly in fundamental research. “It is a great honour for the CNRS to lead such a consortium to advance research and transform the obtained results into concrete innovations,” declared Antoine Petit during the official launch ceremony.
Exchanges with talented partners
Antoine Petit and his team also took advantage of this visit to meet a number of officials from Singapore’s Higher Education and Research sector, and exchange views on the best ways to cooperate with the country regarding innovation and technology transfer with Marc Abensour, French Ambassador to Singapore.
Given its unique position in the French and European research system, the CNRS is also a key partner of Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and the National University of Singapore (NUS), two universities at the highest international level. Discussions therefore focused on current joint projects and possible future collaborations. Both are among the four Singaporean partners of the DesCartes programme and are main partners of several International Research Laboratories (IRL) based in Singapore.
Antoine Petit’s visit was also an opportunity to renew the oldest IRL in Singapore: IPAL, for ‘Image & Pervasive Access Lab’. Created in 2007, following initial collaborations established in 1998, this computer science laboratory brings together NUS and A*STAR on the Singaporean side, and the CNRS, the universities of Cergy and Toulouse 3, as well as Toulouse INP on the French side. This third five-year renewal marks an important step in the implementation of a new orientation for the laboratory’s research themes: it intends to specialise in artificial intelligence to encourage academic collaboration between France and Singapore. “With its talented team and our eminent partners, I have no doubt that this laboratory will be able to make a name for itself in the scientific community in AI,” Antoine Petit said during the event, praising the IRL’s “many interesting projects” and its “great ambition to tackle the challenges and opportunities of tomorrow”.
A work meeting was also held with Singapore’s research funding agency, the NRF. The discussions focused on future CREATE programme topics which, like DesCartes, would aim for leading fundamental research at the highest international level around themes with applications for the sustainable city, which is a priority topic for Singapore. “We want to co-construct with Singapore a research of excellence at the service of society and, to do this, we must explore new subjects for the future,” Antoine Petit said. “NRF has a strong partnership with CNRS, and this continues to strengthen with CNRS spearheading new projects such as the DesCartes programme under the CREATE initiative. Leveraging on the capabilities of both the Singapore and France R&D ecosystems, the programme will conduct research on novel hybrid AI technology that can contribute to complex urban infrastructure management challenges and push the boundaries of translational research. I look forward to the next chapter of our collaboration” added Low Teck Seng, CEO of the NRF.
An industrial approach
Finally, the CNRS was able to demonstrate its willingness to collaborate with the dense industrial eco-system of Singapore, by taking part in an event co-organised with the French Chamber of Commerce in Singapore, the first time for a CNRS executive. This association assists more than 750 French companies in their projects in Singapore and the region, from breaching the market to their establishment and commercial development in Asia. Along with Jean-Luc Moullet, Chief Innovation Officer of the CNRS, Antoine Petit was able to meet representatives of SG Innovate— an investment fund that helps scientific entrepreneurs develop Deep Tech start-ups— but also Thalès and Naval Group, with whom CNRS has already set up an international laboratory dedicated to AI in Australia.
This visit marked the first participation of a CNRS’ CEO to an event of the French Chamber of Commerce in Singapore. © CNRS
As the leading French research establishment co-filing patents with companies, the CNRS, with its partners, has set up more than 200 joint laboratories with industrial companies and launches more than 100 start-ups every year (more than 2000 since 1999). This ensures that the technologies and innovations resulting from public research can benefit industry. “Our three priorities in Singapore – AI, quantum research and materials – are broad topics with many possible applications,” said Antoine Petit. “Relying on our core acitivity – fundamental research – we are constantly concerned with transferring our research to the socio-economic world: a concern that we share with Singaporean institutions”.
Cooperation between CNRS and Singapore
On subjects as varied as quantum physics, nanotechnology, data science or political, social and economic issues, collaborations between CNRS and the city-state of Singapore take various forms.
Four of the six International Research Laboratories in South East Asia are located in Singapore: CINTRA, in partnership with the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and the industrial company Thalès, focuses on high-performance electronics and photonics; MajuLab, in partnership with the National University of Singapore (NUS), NTU, Université Côte d’Azur and Sorbonne University, focuses on quantum computing; “BMC2” with NUS focuses on mechanobiology. Finally, IPAL, renewed until 2025 in partnership with NUS and the Institute for Infocomm Research I2R (A*STAR Institute), focuses on artificial intelligence, language processing and recognition.
There are also three International Research Projects . Created in 2020, the IRP Strechsmart brings together two CNRS laboratories and NUS to invent small-scale scalable systems, and the IRP FiberMed manufactures biosensors for medical applications by linking the know-how of the XLIM laboratory and the A*STAR Institute. The IRP SynBioEco focuses on the bio-inspired economy with NUS, the A*STAR Institute and two laboratories in Toulouse.
Two International Research Networks complete the institutionalized collaborations. The IRN Synergie, renewed last year, creates a network between NTU and the PROMES laboratory for research on renewable energies, and the IRN TranSocGen is interested in genetics with a network linking the Centre de recherche Médecine, sciences, santé, santé mentale, société in France and NTU in Singapore, among other countries.
Often based on these collaborations, other projects have been selected via intra CREATE calls since CNRS has been associated with it, in conjunction with Singaporean institutions and French ESR partners, for example on disease prediction and prevention in Singapore, food waste, synthetic biology, cell growth management using artificial intelligence or cells’ 3D printing.
CNRS and NTU have also set up a PhD Joint programme, which has enabled the recruitment of two PhD students, on the French and Singaporean sides, for each of the five projects selected since 2019. Initiated in 2014, an ANR-NRF agreement has also permitted to fund five to six projects per year on nanotechnology and materials, in which CNRS laboratories are always involved. Finally, the Hubert Curien Merlion Partnership programme, managed by the French Institute of Singapore, finances the mobility of scientists via three offers aimed at financing missions for bilateral projects, seminars to initiate collaboration or extended stays in France for a doctoral student from Singapore. Over the past 8 years, no less than 98 projects involving a CNRS-affiliated laboratory have been selected, 43 of which were led by a CNRS researcher.
 Nine foreign institutions are members of CREATE, along with the two major Singaporean universities: ETH Zürich, Cambridge University, TUM Munich, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, MIT, UC Berkeley, University of Illinois, Shanghai JiaoTong University and the CNRS.
 Intelligent Modelling for Decision-making in Critical Urban Systems.
 In March 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron set the ambition to make France a world leader in AI and launched an initial €1.5 billion plan aimed at supporting and fostering the country’s scientific and technological potential.
 ESI Group, CETIM Matcor, Thales, EDF Singapore, ARIA technologies.
 Coming online in the fall of 2019 in Paris, the Jean Zay supercomputer has been one of Europe’s most powerful supercomputers available to HPC and AI researchers.
 The CNRS set up this interdisciplinary centre in 2022. It aims to support innovative interdisciplinary research projects targeting major issues of AI for science and science for AI (whether theoretical, methodological, instrumental, algorithmic, digital, ethical, epistemological, etc.).
 An IRL identifies, in a specific place, the significant and lasting presence of scientists from a limited number of French and foreign research institutions (only one foreign partner country).
 Deep tech is a classification of organization with the expressed objective of providing technology solutions based on substantial scientific or engineering challenges.
 CNRS International NTU Thalès Research Alliance.
 BioMechanics of Cellular contacts.
 IRPs are collaborative research projects between one or more CNRS laboratories and laboratories in one or two foreign countries, consolidating already established collaborations.
 Heterogeneous Stretchable Systems, Mechanical properties and associated functionalities at small scales, with the Process and Materials Science Laboratory (CNRS/Université Sorbonne Paris Nord) and the PPrime Laboratory (CNRS/Université de Poitiers/ENSMA)
 Specialty optical fiber based biosensing for medical applications, with XLIM (CNRS/Université de Limoges) and A*STAR.
 Synthetic biology for a bio-inspired economy, with Toulouse Biotechnology Institute, Bio & Chemical Engineering and Toulouse White Biotechnology laboratories on the French side (CNRS/Inrae/Insa Toulouse).
 An IRN identifies an international scientific community composed of one or more French laboratories, including at least one CNRS laboratory, and several laboratories abroad, around a shared theme or a research infrastructure.
 French-Singaporean network on-Renewable Energies, with the Processes, Materials and Solar Energy laboratory (CNRS) and NTU.
 Transnational Transdisciplinary Network on Society and Genetics, with the CERMES 3 laboratory on the French side (CNRS/Inserm/Université de Paris).