Hubert Curien, architect of research in Europe

A number of factors combined in creating a research-minded Europe: political will, economic necessity, and constraints within science itself. But they would have remained without consequence were it not for a series of ‘visionary' figures ready to act on them, one of the most prominent of whom was France's former research minister, Hubert Curien.

Hubert Curien at the Bourget Fair, Paris, 2001. © ESA/P.Sebirot
Hubert Curien at the Bourget Fair, Paris, 2001. © ESA/P.Sebirot

Among the many initiatives for European scientific cooperation launched during the past forty years, there is scarcely one in which Hubert Curien, crystallographer and politician who died in February 2005, was not involved. Indeed, European research was one of the main themes running throughout Curien's long career. Marked by the experience of war and resistance, he belonged to that generation of idealists in whose eyes building Europe was a moral imperative as much as a political need. It is this that rendered him all the more sensitive to the objective arguments for developing European scientific cooperation.

Man, machines and ideas

Hubert Curien promoted exchanges of researchers and European cooperation networks in three contexts: the European Science Foundation (ESF), which he headed after being among those responsible for its creation; the Council of Europe, for which he organised a historic meeting of research ministers to discuss research cooperation; and the first European programme to support researchers, which he supervised together with other members of the CODEST committee. The major European installation with which his name is most closely linked is the European Synchroton Radiation Facility, or ERSF, in Grenoble. The project started up in the framework of the ESF of which he was president, it developed following the work of a small group of experts where he played a key role, and the agreement that signalled its construction was signed at a meeting that he chaired. Although he was not present for the creation of CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, Hubert Curien played an important role in the Large Hadron Collider project (see article on the LHC to be published in research*eu n°59). Appointed president of CERN shortly before the moment when the decision had to be taken, it was he who had the difficult task of putting the initiative on track.

Hubert Curien, who had earlier supported the suggestion put forward by Ilya Prigogine to create a European science assembly (which only saw the light of day years later, and then only to rapidly disappear), was also a member of the small group who paved the way for the creation, on the basis of an idea of the Royal Society in the UK, of the Academia Europeae, of which he was later president.

The passion for space

Hubert Curien's greatest passion was nevertheless space. He is often described as the spiritual father of the Ariane space shuttle and throughout his national and international career, as president of the Centre national d'études spatiales (CNES) and then director general of the European Space Agency (ESA).

He defended with conviction the principle of Europe's independent access to space as well as the development of space applications.

He was also a fervent and unconditional (too enthusiastic, some say) advocate of manned flights.

A researcher's approach

Hubert Curien always remained a researcher at heart. This is reflected particularly in his support for the European Research Area (ERA).

First formulated in the 1970s by Commissioner Ralf Dahrendorf and rediscovered in the mid- 1990s by his successor Antonio Ruberti, the idea for a European Research Area was transformed into a genuine political project under Philippe Busquin at the beginning of 2000.

Familiar with the views of Ruberti, Hubert Curien was one of those who ‘passed on' the idea to Philippe Busquin, who in turn handed it down to current Commissioner Janez Potocˇnik. Most of those involved in the gestation of the European Research Area came from an academic background with close links to the world of fundamental research. Hubert Curien was clearly very much a member of this intellectual family, as was another important protagonist, Portuguese research minister José Mariano Gago. In all that he undertook, with the notable exception of space, technological and industrial research played no more than a modest role. Certainly there was EUREKA, but although he defended the initiative loyally and effectively helped its launch, Hubert Curien was not one of its instigators - despite what is sometimes said. EUREKA is in fact the product of an inspiration very foreign to Hubert Curien, the kind of idea that would not have come to him spontaneously.

A question of style

"The style is the man himself," declared the naturalist Buffon. Hubert Curien was a pragmatist who dealt in hard facts, little given to rhetoric, phraseology or high-blown concepts. A modest and courteous man also, he was known for his ability to obtain a consensus as well as to state hard truths that were difficult to contest, in a manner that never caused offence - partly because there was no way to deny them in good faith, and partly due to the disarming kindliness of the manner in which they were pronounced.

The style of Hubert Curien could also be found in the way he expressed himself. A man of the spoken rather than the written word, he left us with few texts penned by his own hand. Rarely did he take the trouble to set out his ideas and vision of science Europe in a complete and systematic form. One can, however, become familiar with his thinking by reading the transcripts of a number of the interviews and speeches he gave. In them he expresses himself with great spontaneity, in a precise, concrete and evocative language that genuinely reflects the personality of the man as evident in the manner of his action.

A combination of pragmatism and common sense, of modesty and open-mindedness, of perspicacity and psychological finesse, of astuteness and well-intentioned irony, of simplicity and warm affability, of clarity of ideas and quiet determination in realising them... all of this formed the essence of Hubert Curien's personality and certainly helped in obtaining the difficult agreements without which science in Europe would have remained a slogan.

What can one man do?

With reference to the ERSF, Yves Farge, former head of the Pechiney research group, had no hesitation in writing: "There is no doubt that this laboratory would not exist today were it not for the decisive action of Hubert Curien.

" Would research Europe be very different if Hubert Curien had met the fate of many of his comrades in the resistance and fallen under enemy bullets? We know the answer many historians would give to this question: "No, if Hubert Curien had not existed, European research would not be different; another would have accomplished what he did."

In the absence of Hubert Curien, it is indeed likely that most of the initiatives with which his name is associated would have been launched at some point. But no doubt not in the same form, in such a convincing manner and with the same success. While Hubert Curien is clearly not alone in having worked for the development of science in Europe, one cannot dispute the fact that his contribution was particularly important. More than any other individual, he thus deserves the title of architect of research in Europe.

Michel André