Members of France-Arizona Institute for Global Grand Challenges convene in Tucson to reflect on partnership's first year

Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2 was part of what made UArizona an ideal partner for CNRS. The unique glass-domed research facility is the only place in the world where scientists can simulate climate change and study its effects on entire ecosystems – from tropical forests to arid lands to oceans – in one location.

The University of Arizona and the French National Centre for Scientific Research signed a research collaboration in April 2021 to establish the France-Arizona Institute for Global Grand Challenges, focused on the environment, space science, data science and global climate change. On Monday, members of the FA Institute, from UArizona and a French delegation, convened on campus to reflect on the institute's first year and plan for its future.

"The challenges we face as humanity include scaling up science-based solutions to sustainable economic development. Consequently, the solutions require international partnerships focusing on science, technology transfer, policy considerations and education," said FA Institute Executive Director Joaquin Ruiz, UArizona vice president of global environmental futures. "I cannot think of a better partnership than the one that has been created between the CNRS and the University of Arizona, two institutions that have a long tradition of international and agile and transdisciplinary work."

With more than 1,100 research laboratories in France and on five continents, CNRS is an interdisciplinary public research organization and represents the largest fundamental leading research institution in Europe. CNRS operates globally with more than 15,000 researchers and nearly 17,000 engineers and technicians.

Representatives from CNS and the university gathered Monday for the start off a three-day conference at which they will discuss how to advance the institute's interdisciplinarity and international strategy. They also will tour the university's Richard F. Caris Mirror Laboratory, Biosphere 2 and recently opened Alfie Norville Gem & Mineral Museum.

Led by Ruiz and Deputy Director Regis Ferriere, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, the FA Institute recently named Sky Dominguez assistant director for engagement and development. Dominguez previously served as manager of administration for the School of Anthropology. They will be joined at the conference by University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins and Elizabeth "Betsy" Cantwell, senior vice president for research and innovation, along with other UArizona administrators and faculty.

The French delegation includes CNRS Chairman and CEO Antoine Petit and CNRS Chief Scientific Officer Alain Schuhl, as well as staff from the French Embassy and Consulates in the U.S., nearly 20 executives from the CNRS and its National Institutes, and research scholars affiliated with CNRS.

The FA Institute supports research that addresses a variety of natural, social and digital grand challenges. During its first year, the institute selected and funded 11 such collaborative projects.

"All these projects combine the unique strengths of UArizona and CNRS to address grand challenges that range from cosmology and particle physics to cultural and social studies and linguistics, through sustainability science, biomedical research and quantum technology," Ferriere said. "The research teams from these 11 projects will present their research program and achievements on the first day of the conference."

One of the projects, led by assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology David Enard, uses genomics and molecular virology to better understand pathogenic viruses stemming from bats, which are a reservoir for many viruses, including SARS-CoV-2.

"As the partnership moves forward in years to come, we expect the FA Institute to boost existing collaborations and facilitate the emergence of new research programs of major significance for science and society," Ferriere said.

"When the FA Institute was established last year, we envisioned a collaborative research hub that would explore complex issues of critical importance and create solutions with meaningful, global impact," Cantwell said. "As we gather this week to reflect on our goals and renew our commitment to addressing grand challenges, it's abundantly clear that the FA Institute already has made significant progress toward advancing solutions-oriented research."

Panel discussion to focus on land, biodiversity conservation

This week's conference will be followed on March 14 by a binational panel discussion focused on a grand challenge related to the environment. The event, called "30% by 2030: Conserving Our Shared Lands," will be held at the Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill at 6 p.m. March 14.

"UArizona and Tucson have become such a 'hot spot' for France's scientific relation with the U.S., as the creation of the FA Institute testifies, especially on global environmental challenges such as climate change and the biodiversity crisis," Ferriere said. "It was natural for France's embassy in the U.S. to choose Tumamoc Hill to host this event."

The panel discussion, moderated by University Communications science writer Mikayla Kelley, will focus on land and biodiversity conservation. As France, Canada and the U.S. have committed to protect 30% of land and sea by 2030, the panel will address opportunities and challenges in meeting this goal. The event is free and open to the public.

Speakers will include Nicole Fyffe, assistant to the Pima County administrator, and José Alberto Burquez Montijo, a researcher in the National Autonomous University of Mexico's Institute of Ecology, in addition to a scientist and a policy expert from France.

"The France-Arizona Institute for Global Grand Challenges is perfectly in line with French societal objectives – such as climate change, educational inequalities, artificial intelligence, health and the environment, the territories of the future and transitional energy – to which the CNRS is committed," said CNRS CEO Petit. "We, along with the European Union and the University of Arizona, value science in society and open science, women in science and inclusiveness, and prioritize working together to face global challenges."

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