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The health crisis, exceptional mobilization and a driver of transformation – Eric Labaye

In an interview with Dixit, the President of École Polytechnique and Institut Polytechnique de Paris reflects on the Covid-19 health crisis. He highlights the way the crisis has mobilized the entire École Polytechnique community and become a driver for transformation. He also outlines some prospects for the coming months.

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École Polytechnique resumed its on-site activities on May 12. How are this post-lockdown phase and preparations for the Fall semester 2020 being handled?

Eric Labaye - The campus reopened officially on May 12. This is a very gradual process, and the highest priority is being given to the health and safety of all involved–students, research professors and staff members–a priority that led to the school’s closure on March 16, in accordance with the lockdown established by the authorities. However, students will not return to campus before the end of August. The research that has resumed is primarily for experimental purposes and remote working is still being given priority for administrative tasks. Overall, less than 20% of staff members are currently on-site. All of the School's departments have mobilized to ensure the reopening of the site, in particular to organize entrance examinations for the Cycle Ingénieur Polytechnicien and the recruitment of all the School’s other programs.

At the same time, we are actively preparing for the start of the next academic year, despite ongoing uncertainties as to what the health situation will be like in late August / early September, when students are scheduled to return to campus.  Uncertainties also remain regarding the possibility of hosting international students, who account for 40% of the student body. We are also in discussion with our partner institutions around the world in order to find solutions for international mobility and exchanges for current students. Gatherings will likely still be limited at the start of the academic year, so we are working on hybrid solutions combining distance and classroom learning when possible. The lockdown period demonstrated our ability to roll out new, large-scale, fully-digital operational methods, and to do so quickly.

How did this digital shift take place at the school and what has it taught you?

During the eight weeks of lockdown, our buildings were of course closed. The first step was to shift quickly to digital operations and ensure the continuity of our training, research, and innovation activities. We succeeded in meeting this challenge, making the transition in one week, thanks to everyone’s involvement and mobilization, which I would like to acknowledge.

This feat would never have been possible if the school’s digitization had not already been underway. In this sense, the health crisis became a driver for this transformation. In coming weeks and months, we will need to maintain the spirit of innovation, agility and cross-disciplinary cooperation that resulted from our collective efforts. We will also need to draw on what we have learned, the new forms of organization we successfully implemented, and new types of interaction we were able to invent. However, one point seems clear: an “all-digital” campus is not to be desired. We must find a balance that allows us to maintain significant human interaction.

Within our community, this digital shift accelerated the transformations underway, in terms of the training formats offered and the organization of our institutions, but also in terms of the knowledge we share and needs we meet in a world severely impacted by the crisis. The scientific excellence cultivated at X provides us with powerful tools for finding solutions to this health crisis. It is also our role to train future generations to handle these situations that are bound to repeat themselves. 

In addition to this internal mobilization, the school also became fully mobilized in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic and in serving the general interest...

The school’s commitment to fight this pandemic and serve the general interest has inspired our entire community. It is impossible to mention all the initiatives taken, but I will give a few examples. First, the involvement of our students on a massive scale. Through Opération Résilience, 130 students began or extended their internships with operational units within the Paris Fire Department, the Gendarmerie, or the Red Cross. Some fifty students also went to help intensive care units in twenty Ile-de-France hospitals compile a national database of Covid-19 patients. Over 400 Polytechnique and Bachelor’s degree students became involved in tutoring to help high school students throughout France and dozens of children of military personnel in active service (a total of nearly 68,000 tutoring hours from March through to the end of June).

As for the research professors, over twenty initiatives have been carried out or are 
currently underway to support the fight against Covid-19, which will need to 
continue. The Center for Applied Mathematics (CMAP) has been carrying out 
analysis and modeling work, as well as evaluating scenarios for controlling the 
epidemic. Its research teams have also been working on the optimization of the 
pool of intensive care beds. In order to inform decision-makers in the design of 
public policies, teams from the Center for Research in Economics and Statistics 
(CREST) have been working to define the best generalized screening strategy for 
the population. The Optics and Biosciences Laboratory (LOB) is studying the use of 
rare-earth-doped nanoparticles for ultra-sensitive detection of COVID-19.  
The Interdisciplinary Institute of Innovation (i3-CRG) is taking part in the design 
of the StopCovid application being developed by the government. 

Executive Education mobilized the school’s professors in order to offer our top experts’ perspectives on the analysis of this crisis and consequences for our community and beyond through regular webinars.

The Drahi X-Novation Center also began producing protective equipment for Covid-19 at the beginning of April and is continuing to do so thanks to the joint work of members of volunteer teams from the FabLab at X and Valéo.

Finally, our alumni were also quick to step in and provide our students who could not travel abroad with internships, support students facing financial difficulties, and provide masks and medical equipment to hospitals right from the start of the pandemic, and now for the school as well.

At the end of April, I shared this collective and individual involvement with all the school administrators and the Board of Directors commended them and offered its support and encouragement.

This involvement is perfectly aligned with our principles of serving the common good and concern for the general interest that the school has supported and promoted both in times of prosperity and during the most difficult crises, since it was founded over 250 years ago.

The crisis came as a brutal shock. It has perhaps helped raise more widespread awareness of the new environment. What solutions can École Polytechnique offer in facing this environment?

This crisis was both sudden and brutal. It brought human global mobility to a standstill and the lockdown measures required to save human lives led to the shutdown of entire economic sectors.

We have collectively navigated this unprecedented crisis in a remarkable manner, thanks to the discipline and sense of responsibility demonstrated by each citizen. This was also made possible by the unprecedented mobilization of medical, economic, and social support from the State, justified by the urgent situation, and the involvement of local communities and economic stakeholders. It demonstrated the importance of placing operational responsibility close to the ground in order to gain in agility, a critical component in facing daily challenges in times of crisis.

The last few weeks have also highlighted the importance of resilience as a strategic focus for governments and business leaders. This includes the ability to manage in the midst of uncertainty and prepare an organization or country for the most difficult and improbable events. Issues of sovereignty and competitiveness will need to be addressed for research and industrial policy at both the French and European levels. Given its DNA and research capacities, X will contribute to these advances.

The Covid-19 pandemic has stressed the importance of scientific research to ensure the control of risks, including natural ones, which we took for granted. It also demonstrated the importance for both private and public leaders, experts and managers to have solid scientific training. Looking beyond this health crisis, we are facing a vast number of challenges in the areas of security, climate and the economy and scientific progress will continue to provide answers to these challenges.

The recovery of an economy that has lost approximately 10% of GDP this year will call for massive investments and education, and training and research will need to play a role in this. The school will need to strengthen many of its actions, including training new generations for a new context, providing skills for those who will need to change jobs, and furthering research for health and the environment.

Finally, the digital shift has changed attitudes to the possibilities of technology 
in certain working environments, including higher education. It is up to our school 
to continue to shape the future by reinventing the student experience in order to 
have a greater impact, likely combining digital connections, teamwork, and strong 
interaction with professors, to which we are very attached and attentive.

We will immediately start to address all of these pressing needs, which are at the heart of our mission, working with our partners from Institut Polytechnique de Paris, launched in 2019. 

Can you provide more specific details on how the Institut Polytechnique de Paris (IP Paris) project, which will soon be celebrating its first anniversary, can help respond to these new challenges?

Institut Polytechnique de Paris is now taking shape rapidly and pools the strengths of École Polytechnique, ENSTA Paris, ENSAE Paris, Telecom Paris and Telecom SudParis. Its goal is to rank among the very best science and technology institutions in the world, capable of attracting the finest students, the most renowned professors and developing a vibrant ecosystem of innovation.

IP Paris is truly coming into being with the establishment of  inter-disciplinary research centers aimed at addressing the major challenges of our day, by reaching a scale that allows them to have a global impact and international visibility. The first inter-disciplinary center, Energy 4 Climate, was created in 2019 for climate and carbon-free energy. A second center is now being launched in partnership with HEC on artificial intelligence and data analysis. We are developing a third center in the field of bio-medical engineering, a field that has been further strengthened by the current crisis.

They are part of an ecosystem of international research, which, although it is competitive, is also open and collaborative, and the health crisis has demonstrated the importance of sharing scientific discoveries and innovations on a global scale. They also rely on a public-private partnership to which École Polytechnique and IP Paris are firmly committed.

While it is still difficult to measure the economic impacts of the current health crisis, this period is difficult for all of us. Support from our corporate partners and our entire community will be crucial in enabling us to achieve our ambitions of serving the general interest.

In conclusion, how do you believe the school’s values can inspire its community and the nation, especially in terms of the recent global events?

The health crisis demonstrated the relevance of the school’s founding principles: excellence and transdisciplinarity in education and research, accountability and leadership, concern for the general interest, discipline, team spirit and attentiveness to one another through interpersonal skills. I am proud and grateful that our school’s entire community has upheld these values in such trying times. The crisis is not over yet, and we must maintain this momentum in the future, together.