Joint ERCIM Actions
ERCIM News No.33 - April 1998

Letter from the Manager

At the Board of Directors' meeting in Copenhagen last November, I was elected ERCIM Manager for a one-year term. This is an unusual situation, since I am both INRIA's President and ERCIM's Manager during this period, and thus I owe a word of explanation on taking up one more responsibility.

But first let me say a word of thanks to Jean-Michel Chassériaux, who has been a devoted and efficient ERCIM Manager these last years. As you know, he was also Head of the International Relations Office of INRIA, and a recognised top EC expert. Since his departure from INRIA was scheduled last year, I had a tough decision to make concerning his replacement. My first assessment of the situation was that ERCIM is a major strategic European institution in the making, and that INRIA is deeply committed to its continuous support. This is why INRIA proposed at the bi-annual meeting of ERCIM in May 97 to host ERCIM Office for another 3 years term. Secondly, ERCIM's Manager must be an INRIA employee during this period according to ERCIM's constitution. Thus I set to work at searching for a senior INRIA researcher, well versed in European affairs, who would commit himself to help shape up ERCIM's future in this complex but exciting period of interconnexion of our R&D institutions. Now this search has succeeded, and I am happy to report that in early 1999 one of my most trusted collaborators will assume the position of ERCIM's Manager. I shall propose his nomination in due time to ERCIM's Directors.

In the meantime, as ERCIM's interim Manager, I intend to devote a serious part of my activity to understanding how to steer ERCIM towards a &laqno; win-win-to-the-power-14 » situation, if you pardon me this mathematician's joke. This will not happen in the secret of my cabinet, of course, and I have set up an intensive programme of visits and consultations of all our members' representatives, but also of meetings with the top European officers in charge of the forthcoming Fifth Framework Program. By now, I consider having reached a good understanding of my colleague Directors' positions, and actually achieved a relationship of mutual trust and friendship with the ones I met so far, an obvious prerequisite to any serious progress in our joint endeavour. Concerning the ExecCom, it is really a pleasure for me to interact with all these seriously dedicated professionals.

Star Alliance or Confederation of Consortia?

A recurring theme of ERCIM's meetings is the existential interrogation: where is ERCIM heading, what are its main missions, how should we try to improve our league without distorting its founding spirit. Currently, two apparently different positions are discussed. One has been dubbed the Star Alliance model, by analogy with typical collaborative agreements between airlines. According to this model, we join forces because we are the best national partners in our field, with enough common overlap to launch successful joint ventures, and enough complementarity to have the whole greater than the sum of its parts. This model is faithful to ERCIM's historical development, and it showed clearly its value by the success of our joint programmes. ERCIM is directly managing quite a few major EC projects, its post-doc program is a clear added value to our respective institutions, and the rate of bilateral or multilateral research cooperations between ERCIM members is steadily increasing. Moreover, ERCIM Office is doing a superb job of dissemination through both ERCIM News and ERCIM Web Server, and may help members by assuming coordination of EC projects. Finally, ERCIM finances are good. ERCIM is now starting to emerge as a virtual institution, through its infrastructure programmes of video-conferencing and libraries interconnection. Tomorrow it may well become a strong network of innovative startup incubators. Star Alliance it is, and as Star Alliance it will continue to prosper and grow.

At the other end of the spectrum, ERCIM could continue to develop into a Confederation of Consortia, each one of which striving to be representative of its national R&D community in our field. Such a confederation could be recognised as a genuine representative body, both by its national authorities and by funding agencies such as the European Commission programmes. This would firm up ERCIM as a more established institution, which would be regularly consulted for strategic European decisions concerning our research community. It would be easier to channel R&D investments through member institutions perceived as devoted to the common good as opposed to the selfish interests of a few centers of excellence. In this direction, ERCIM has started to open its working groups and their workshops to the participation of scientists of other institutions. It could increase this role in scientific animation, and consider organising conferences and schools, and perhaps even manage the edition of scientific journals. Thus ERCIM could play a coordinating role at a time when many professional societies are suffering from having too narrow a scope, either thematically or geographically, to be economically viable. By assuming such missions for the common good of European scientists, we may hope to have more energy put into ERCIM even from within our own researchers, who often do not relate very well to an organisation sometimes perceived as driven in a top-down fashion.

Of course each of the two models has its merits and its pitfalls, and it would be foolish to steer brutally ERCIM from one model to the other. Perhaps the right answer is to find the right combination of both. Anyway, only slow evolution, clearly checked with measurable progress, and with a consensus of all members, will bear fruit. Indeed, a clear danger of both models is complacency in a static vision of being 'the best', be it the best star alliance or the best representative confederation. Being the best is a constant fight. New opportunities will arise, new cooperative programmes will take place, and ERCIM will have to adapt to new missions.

Let me give a concrete example of such a promising new opportunity, as a conclusion. Five years ago, INRIA was commissioned by the EC to act as the European Host of the Web Consortium. One year ago INRIA and RAL joined forces in the W3C Leveraging Action project, now under implementation. In particular, a number of W3C Offices are in the process of being created in a number of European countries. Very naturally, these offices will be established first in the institutions which are both W3C members and ERCIM members. Needless to say, this operation will considerably strengthen ERCIM visibility in this strategic area. I consider this synergy between W3C and ERCIM as exemplary, in that it is a concrete example of a strategic edge which will benefit not just to ERCIM members, but indeed to the whole IT community of our respective countries, which ERCIM will provide with a crucial communication channel for Internet technology.

Bernard Larrouturou

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