Globalization has given rise to a new definition of competition and the capacity to innovate has become the new international standard for differentiation. France's elite engineering schools are now more than ever being measured for their performance against the world's most prestigious universities. The Institut Montaigne recently published a report entitled, "Adapting our engineers' education to globalization", in which the challenges of the new reality are made clear. First and foremost : "making innovation the motor of the engineering curriculum".

Innovation is the buzz word on the tip of everyone’s tongue and at every level of French economic life the word has become a leitmotif for much of what ails the country’s development. Published under the auspices of French think tank Institut Montaigne, “Adapting our engineers’ education to globalization” was authored by three recent graduates of the prestigious Polytechnique school for engineering, Romain Bordier, Aloïs Kirchner and Jonathan Nussbaumer. Contained within its pages is the alarming revelation that “per capita, the number of start-ups launched on French soil is three times less than in the United States and for the number of patents registered with the World Intellectual Property Organization two times less.”

Placing sole responsibility for the failures of the current policy on the steps of the grandes écoles is a stretch but their role on the front lines as incubators for generation after generation of French scientific talent clearly warrants some measure of blame. The reality is that these institutions are succeeding more as finishing schools for future generations of technocrats than breeding grounds for the scientific innovators of the future.

Less management, more science
In neighboring countries there has been a more marked trend for activities which demand high levels of technical expertise, notably research, to attract the best and brightest of the engineering talent pool. According to a study, led jointly by the French science and engineering society CNISF and its British and German equivalents, and cited by the Insitut Montaigne report, “50 percent of British and German engineers report working primarily in either research or design capacities whereas the figure in France is closer to one-third.”

The anomalous French figures are unquestionably linked to the somewhat unique status accorded to the grandes écoles as the gatekeepers to the country’s elites. Engineers are accorded especially high status and science is employed as a tool for discerning the best and brightest candidates to hold the future reins of power, scientific or otherwise. As highlighted by Henri Lachmann, Vice President of the Institut Montaigne, “too many graduates of French engineering programs drift away, not only from the discipline stricto sensu but from the entire sector, and demonstrate a particular fondness for careers in finance.”

To restore the mission of engineering departments as the terrain from which technological innovation can be cultivated a consensus has been reached among some on the need to place renewed emphasis on research at the core of the curriculum. The Institut Montaigne report underlines some significant differences in the way doctoral studies are approached and has identified this area as one of “strategic” importance. Whereas 15 percent of engineers studying for a Master’s degree in the United States have already completed work on a thesis the corresponding figure for France is a mere 4 percent.

The “postdoc”, The French engineer’s poor relation
French engineering schools are acutely aware of the benefits that pure research and a focus on the process of innovation can bring and encourage their students to follow such a path. Hiring managers have taken a less rosy view however and newly minted graduates find themselves bumping up against ingrained prejudices that place little value on this approach.

“It is a major problem and we are working hard to resolve it through our links with enterprise,” explains Jean-Pascal Jullien, Director of the core curriculum at Telecom ParisTech. More specifically, “We have made quite specific inquiries into the criteria employed when judging the value of a doctoral degree when compared to an engineering degree in hiring decisions, with particular focus on how additional years of study figure into salary calculations.” Telecom ParisTech awards around 80 doctoral degrees annually for the approximately 250 students who graduate from the initial phase of its post-graduate programs. “We have yet to create a strong policy of encouragement [toward thesis writing],” admits Jean-Pascal Jullien. “Our first priority is the creation of mutually beneficial relationships with enterprise in order to best fulfill our primary mission, the success of our students.”

The disdain French enterprise has so far demonstrated toward doctoral students can be partly explained, though few will admit it openly, to prejudices toward the state-run university system in general. The grandes écoles are outside this system and it is to these small elite schools that business leaders look to snap up well-polished graduates for their management ranks. For Jonathan Nussbaumer, co-author of the Insitut Montaigne report, “the current structure of doctoral programs is poorly suited to the demands placed on professional engineers.” If a thesis is to assume a role in the education of young professionals the report has made clear the need for more “flexible” doctoral programs with provisions to “alternate between periods of research, teaching, or actual work experience and a framework that allows the creation of start-ups.”

Nevertheless, for Stéphane Mallat, Professor at the Polytechnique and renowned for his work in applied mathematics, an evolution of the current mindset will require time more than anything else. “During discussions everyone agrees: ‘Yes, research, innovation, it’s crucial’. Yet in reality, [and particularly within large corporations] research teams are driven by the immense pressure placed on engineers for development. To resist this pressure and be able to say ‘in three years, this engineer could really bring something’, a gut feeling is required, and to know this feeling one must have lived it”. In his estimation, the path taken by doctoral students will struggle to gain any real respect until those who have walked it are seated in positions power themselves.

From theory to practical application…
In many countries, the transition through pure research occurs much more naturally over the course of the engineer’s education and is implemented more systematically than is the case in France. Upon completion of his undergraduate studies at the Ecole Centrale Paris, the centralien Gautier Brunet crossed the Atlantic and continued his studies from within the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT. In the United States he discovered an environment where “a Masters Thesis was seen as an essential intermediate point on the path to a PhD.” Like all students in his class, fulfillment of the requirements for his degree depended on successful completion of a Masters Thesis, based on research conducted in the university’s laboratories where he was able to rub shoulders with like-minded individuals at all levels of academic attainment. “In a given lab,” he explains, “there is typically an undergrad being initiated into the research environment, a Master’s candidate serving as a research assistant, a PhD candidate, a post-doc…” As the report has highlighted, this process ensures that American engineering students are introduced to the laboratory environment at their earliest stages of development as is also the case in other countries, such as Germany and Sweden.

Reevaluating pedagogical foundations to encourage innovation
The report underlines the obstacles lying in the path of young engineers trying to make the difficult leap toward becoming “the main drivers for the advancement of laboratory research into the realm of practical application.” While current methods of instruction, along with a lack of infrastructure have no doubt contributed to this problem—the Institut Montaigne report recommends a new approach which consists of creating “centers for experimental research” complete with laboratory facilities that are open to all students who could then avail themselves of the opportunity “to learn through doing”—perhaps the main culprit is the scholastic approach which places too much emphasis on theory.

While it is known that French engineering students typically begin their studies with a level of scientific knowledge superior to their homologues in other countries, it is also known that their instruction up to that point has for the most part been rather abstract. In the United States “students often have a far deeper experience with projects” than their French counterparts, explains Gautier Brunet. “Many of them have entered competitions between schools or have taken part in challenges. They have gained practical knowledge and are better acquainted with real world situations.”

For Jonathan Nussbaumer, “to create centers for experimental research, is to act directly on pedagogical foundations and open up the possibility for new approaches” at an institutional level. The young graduate of the Ecole Polytechnique admits that this would constitute a step in the right direction but needs to be taken further. The Freshman year “needs to completely destabilize former modes of reflection [for the students]”, which have been acquired through studies leading up to that point, (notably during the prépa period leading up to the college entrance examinations), “and open up the doors to an engineering curriculum that is richer, more creative, and more courageous.”

Conscious of the need to enhance the employment prospects of their students, French engineering schools have begun to place increasing emphasis on student-led projects in recent years. This is particularly true at the Ecole Centrale Paris where a massive process of renovation and reform in the curriculum occurred not so long ago. One result of this process was the inclusion of “Project Innovation” to the second-year syllabus where as Martine Cazier explained “upon completion of the first year, students are assembled into groups of five and are encouraged to ask questions of a real-world problems as received from a client” arranged through our partnerships with enterprise. A competition between the various teams is organized and for the most innovative among them there exists the possibility to complete the process through the registration of a patent…

The success of the technology sector depends on a healthy framework for innovation and is damaged considerably when the passage to concrete outcomes suffers “delays”. “A desire to emulate and contribute to the success of young technology firms is a foregone conclusion in the minds of students attending a university such as MIT,” and is clearly felt on American campuses. According to Romain Lacombe, who completed a Master’s at MIT after graduating from Ecole Polytechnique, the idea is to use the extensive research that is required to complete the Master’s program as the trampoline from which to launch one’s own start-up enterprise.

The laboratory as an incubator for start-ups
The process of using research conducted over the course of studies at university as the “trampoline” from which to launch oneself into the entrepreneurial class is not solely the reserve of the United States. The Institut Montaigne report highlights that, “on the English side of the Channel, 40% of biotechnology companies listed on the London Stock Exchange can trace their origins to Cambridge University.”

To strengthen the ties that bind together the world of academic research and private enterprise, the report suggests reinforcing the dynamic through “developing the physical presence of enterprise on campus” through the construction of laboratories in which leading firms work in partnership with academia. Some institutions have already implemented such arrangements, as with the example of the engineering school Chimie-ParisTech and its relationship with the French state-owned power utility (EDF) and the French National Center of Scientific Research (CNRS), to combine efforts under the umbrella of the Institute of Research and Development on Photovoltaic Energy (IRDEP). The fruits of this approach have already resulted in a start-up…

Stéphane Mallat is a professor at Ecole Polytechnique and an ardent champion of the complimentary nature of research and the interests of enterprise. It’s a position he’s prepared to defend through the example of his own experience launching the start-up Let It Wave (since sold) on the strength of ideas that arose in the process of his advanced research in wavelet theory. “As strange as it may seem, research provides excellent preparation for the launch of a start-up,” he explains. “The initial phases are almost identical: attracting investment, raising funds …” But above all, “the creation of a technology start-up requires a commitment to being the best in one’s chosen field, and the willingness to practice disruptive innovation to achieve this aim.”

Igniting a passion to create
At the Ecole Polytechnique he designed the “Technology Start-up Creation” course which adheres to a simple defining principle. Students are placed in groups of four or five and through their work in the laboratory must discern the outline of an innovation and use it as a basis for the development of a concrete application and corresponding business plan. “The course has been running for three years now. In the first year only 30 students expressed any interest, in the second 50, and this year 80 … There is a real demand from the students. They arrive and they want to experiment. The goal is to create the spark that opens the door. The need was always there.”

Individual schools have gotten the message. To encourage entrepreneurial instincts a number of institutions have created structures that can acts as incubators for the ideas of “young visionaries”. At ParisTech this framework has been instrumental in the creation of around 30 start-ups by satisfying the need for infrastructure and the basis from which to nourish relationships among the laboratories of individual colleges in the group. In other regions, schools have created partnerships with universities, which has been the case with the Polytech’Nice cited by the Institut Montaigne report, where the Paca-Est business incubator was founded, and is shared by, the University of Nice and INRIA (National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control).

Unfortunately, for many of the students of France’s elite engineering schools creating a start-up will continue to be perceived as risky, especially when compared to the reassuring possibility of a comfortable management position in one of the country’s top companies. For those who have chosen to spend a portion of their studies in the United States the cultural differences are striking. Romain Lacombe, invested one-and-a-half years in the development of a start-up project in Silicon Valley along with a fellow student he met while at MIT. He remembers clearly the frosty reception he received upon returning to France where his unique experiences were poorly understood. “The creation of a start-up at the end of one’s studies was viewed by American companies as something unique and constructive, and recruiters actually reached out to me when I ceded control of my start-up,” he said. “In France my professional path was rather less naturally understood by recruiters …”

A paradox well understood by Stéphane Mallat, and one on which he is attempting to shift perceptions. “Statistics show that a start-up is likely to fail,” he remarks with aplomb. “Yet failure represents an enormous learning opportunity from which we can bounce back. In France there is a fear of failure …” he states with regret. He has however noticed a slight shift recently. Following on from the dazzling trajectory of the likes of Facebook, students are daring to dream and the researcher has noted that, “things are changing. Enterprise is increasingly à la mode, socially it is viewed in a more favorable light, and there is increasingly excited discussion on the subject of innovation. Romain Lacombe admits that, “In the classroom, the buzz over enterprise has increased in volume over what was heard only five years ago.” A sign of change … Toward more innovation?


  • Adapting our engineers’ education to globalization (Institut Montaigne, February 2011)

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