The new call is "a rare opportunity for researchers to express a form of solidarity," CNRS says.

Roberto Maldeno/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

French agency asks academics to shed light on Paris attacks

The French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) has asked academics for proposals to help understand and prevent the type of violence that left 130 dead in Paris on 13 November and profoundly shocked the country. The call came in a letter from Alain Fuchs, the president of the flagship agency, who described it as "a rare opportunity for researchers to express a form of solidarity with all those who, directly or indirectly, have been affected by the terrible events which, as we all know, can happen again.”

The funding call aims to encourage scholars of all disciplines to work together and fill research gaps. “This understanding is crucial if we are to combat these phenomena more effectively—without being blinded by anger or resentment, which is the hallmark of terrorism and its perpetrators—by using our most potent weapons: intelligence and knowledge," Fuchs wrote. The call doesn't specify topics of interest or a budget; a CNRS spokesperson says that part of CNRS's €10 million budget for interdisciplinary projects may be used.

Many academics welcome the initiative, especially because French politics are currently dominated by raw emotions. “At a time when ‘the gut’ too often tends to prevail over the brain, within the political class as in the media, any call to think can only be salutary,” says François Burgat, a CNRS political scientist at the Institute for Research and Study on the Arab and Muslim World in Aix-en-Provence.

This is the second time CNRS has taken action in the wake of terror attacks on French soil. Following the murders at Charlie Hebdo in January, the agency funded several new research projects on security and violence—for example, into new mathematical models for social interactions—and increased its support for research on human behavior, the Middle East, the Muslim world, and religions in general. It also sought to make insights from research more available to society, for example by bringing together scholars and prison administration officials.

In a story published on Friday, Fuchs told Libération that the new call had already yielded 40 responses. CNRS says it will appoint a steering committee to determine selection criteria for the new call and promises “a rigorous, simple and rapid procedure” for applicants that will allow the first research results to emerge next year.

Nonna Mayer, a CNRS political scientist at the Center of European Studies at Sciences Po in Paris, welcomes the call but points out that researchers have already done a significant amount of work on issues such as violence, radicalization in jail, and Islam. New studies should build on that research, she wrote in an email.

Marwan Mohammed, a sociologist at the Centre Maurice Halbwachs in Paris who's employed by CNRS, agrees that more knowledge is needed, but he worries that CNRS itself isn't taking enough time to think things through—a concern that has been echoed by several other academics. The apparent rush doesn't allow researchers time to come up with a well–thought out proposal, Mohammed told ScienceInsider in an email, nor does it recognize how difficult it can be to obtain results in this field. “This funding call has been decided quickly … in a period of strong emotion,” he wrote.

In an op-ed piece in Libération that appeared just 5 days before this month's attacks, Mohammed pointed out another problem. As a result of a new French intelligence law enacted in July, social scientists can't guarantee their subjects confidentiality. That's a problem for researchers who study sensitive topics, wrote Mohammed, who himself abandoned a promising project to study the "social experience of violent radicalization." Although CNRS's intentions are "laudable," he wrote, "let’s now think about the legal conditions for their realization.”