Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication
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Hearing of Loic Bertrand by the French Parliament

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The Parliamentary Office for the Assessment of Scientific Choices (OPESCT) organised a public hearing on Thursday 23 May on the role that science should play in the Notre-Dame-de-Paris restoration project. Loïc Bertrand, Director of IPANEMA, spoke at a round table discussion on the role of scientific research. The event was broadcast live on the Senate website.

"Mr. President,
Honourable Members of Parliament,
Dear colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to thank the OPESCT for their invitation to present the contribution that devices such as the SOLEIL synchrotron and the European Research Infrastructure for Heritage Science (E-RIHS), which is currently being set up, as well as the exceptional research support mechanism that we are setting up with the Île-de-France Region following the tragedy of 15 April, 2019 can and will do to help. What I am going to say is therefore part of the "extreme emergency" phase presented by Ms. Lise Leroux of the Laboratoire de recherche des monuments historiques.

First of all, let me briefly define what a synchrotron is.

A synchrotron is a source of intense light, especially in the X-ray range, on a large instrument. France hosts two of them, SOLEIL - a national facility - on the Plateau de Saclay and ESRF - an international facility - in Grenoble. Excluding space programmes, ITER, and other specific infrastructures, SOLEIL is the most important of the very large national research instruments after the French ocean fleet. Its ring is 100 m in diameter. The SOLEIL synchrotron hosts several thousand scientists from all scientific disciplines every year, who conduct experiments on its thirty characterisation lines.

These two synchrotrons have an expertise in heritage materials that is unparalleled internationally. In 2007, 12 years ago, the French State and the Île-de-France authorities decided to set up the IPANEMA laboratory, the only centre in the world dedicated to Heritage on large instruments, which I have had the honour of building and managing since its creation. IPANEMA hosts scientists from all over the world who come to work on the SUN lines and other light sources. SOLEIL has hosted more than 200 research projects in the field of heritage since it opened 10 years ago.

As many publications show us, there is no doubt that we will be able to contribute to research devoted to Notre-Dame Cathedral, for example :

  • concerning the study of the history of materials : information on artistic techniques, stone, wood, stained glass, furniture objects. 3D imaging methods such as X-ray microtomography (a variant of the medical scanner) can be applied to small samples to determine their composition and properties. 2D imaging methods such as X-ray scanning fluorescence or UV photoluminescence provide high-resolution maps of entire sections of chemically complex and altered materials to understand how they are manufactured and how they are altered ;
  • concerning the diagnosis of materials and the development of new restorative treatments. For example, the study of the diffusion of new products proposed for treatment in porous matrices ;
  • for risk prevention, for instance through the study of the response of materials to heating or mechanical stress.

SOLEIL has therefore decided to facilitate this process by granting priority access to studies devoted to Notre-Dame. Nevertheless, I will not be more precise for two reasons that are very important to me : (1) the definition of this research is a co-construction process involving the various actors in research, including methods, and (2) we need a little more time to conceive it, after the aforementioned "extreme emergency" phase has taken place.

Three conditions have to be fullfiled for it to be a success :

  • Methods.
    Over the past twenty years, the unprecedented development of both 2D and 3D imaging and spectroimaging has enabled us to better describe the complexity of heterogeneous heritage materials. Contrary to appearances, an instrument like SOLEIL is not "given", it is in permanent remodeling. Confronting real issues is an essential source of creativity and inspiration. X-rays are our eyes. We must continue to raise the method to the ranks of other fields, as you are doing today, so that this interdisciplinary dialogue can continue to be built.
  • Resources.
    Since 2017, I have been coordinating the "major field of interest" (DIM) dedicated to "Ancient and Heritage Materials" in the Île-de-France region with Mr Étienne Anheim (EHESS) and Ms Isabelle Rouget (MNHN). This network gathers 95 laboratories, 23 companies and recovery partners, a total of 731 scientists, in the field of ancient and heritage materials. To our knowledge, it is the largest regional network in the world dedicated to the discipline ; it brings together all the players in the Paris region. I would like to announce today that the DIM has decided to launch, with the Île-de-France authorities, an ambitious call for projects that will support regional research programmes in coordination with the CNRS and the teams of the Ministry of Culture by providing post-doctorates and equipment (such as the databases mentioned above). In particular, we are working to ensure that the heritage conservation and restoration sector is fully involved. We need your support here, especially to ensure that these funds do not only cover equipment but also the staff that we need.
  • Time.
    This is what I call "the time for interdisciplinarity". Facing such a tragedy, we must "hurry to think". If a doctorate in our field generally lasts four years (and not three, which already makes us leave the LMD at bac+8), it is because this time is necessary to appropriate the data of a complex problem, share them, find solutions often by identifying that the question was badly phrased in the first place. Mediation and exchange structures such as IPANEMA and DIM play a key role in this process which requires constant co-creation. Beyond the safeguarding operations, we need to support even more the frameworks allowing both agility and creative interdisciplinarity, which are the keys to a demanding and high-quality research, combining application and fundamentals.

I would like to end this presentation by pointing out three areas where you can support us and help us.

We have a particular strength in France anf in Europe in the field of heritage research. We must put all our strength into it rather than waiting for other countries, other continents, to open up the path for us. The establishment of an "Heritage" cluster within the framework of the future European Research Framework Programme must be further supported so that this programme is fully funded like any other research theme, rather than ten times less as first figures indicate, by increasing its interdisciplinarity. The position of a Member State such as France is crucial while these negotiations are ongoing, including to ensure that the "material sciences" dimension of heritage is fully present alongside the activities in the human and social sciences of this future cluster.

We must hear the many messages from Europe and the whole world that came to us after the tragedy. We have all received dozens if not hundreds. We are currently setting up the European research Infrastructure for Heritage Science (E-RIHS), which will coordinate advanced research platforms in the field of heritage. Help us to build a real coordinated research force between European countries for the study of cultural and natural heritage. Let us provide sustainable and solid frameworks to collaborate, to work together, to treat and above all to prevent disasters from happening again in the future.

As you reminded us in introduction, Mr. President, 1500 scientists and members of the public gathered for four days of exchange a few hundred metres from Notre-Dame, as part of the World Meeting on Heritage, Science and Technology, two months before the fire. This event was co-organised by IPANEMA, the Academy of Sciences and the CNRS, at the Institut de France. In this context, a Solemn Declaration was adopted emphasizing the "extent of the often irreversible degradation of the world’s heritage".

This declaration made four key proposals for heritage research :

  • include the study of heritage in the missions of organizations,
  • simplify interdisciplinary recruitment,
  • better support laboratories,
  • act in the public space.

Thank you for your attention."

Learn more about this event on our website.
Watch the video.
Download the agenda.