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Notre Dame Cathedral’s altar after the April fire. Scientists have started an association to help with the restoration process.

Philippe Lopez/Pool via REUTERS

Scientists want to help restore Notre Dame, hoping to make new discoveries in the process

A month after the fire that ravaged Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, scientists and research bodies are getting organized to help restore the building—and advance scientific knowledge.

At a public hearing held yesterday by France’s Parliamentary Office for the Evaluation of Scientific and Technological Options (OPECST), academics explained how they can contribute to the government’s efforts to restore the cathedral, which was partly destroyed on 15 April.

“This catastrophe is, in the end, a privileged moment for research, because we’ll have access to materials that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to access,” said Martine Regert, deputy scientific director of the Institute of Ecology and Environment at the French national research agency CNRS in Paris. For example, analyzing certain isotopes in the cathedral’s timber frame could provide insights about the medieval climate, said Philippe Dillmann, a research leader at CNRS’s Institute for Research on Archeomaterials.

“There are different levels of science: Some will help the restoration itself, some will serve our future knowledge of Notre Dame, and some will serve more generally our understanding of the behavior of certain materials,” explained Aline Magnien, director of the Laboratory for the Restoration of Historical Monuments in Champs-sur-Marne, France.

Some initiatives have emerged from the bottom up, such as the association Scientists at the service of the restoration of Notre-Dame. Founded by six academics eager to help, it now has more than 200 members in many different disciplines—from art history to geophysics, to archaeology and mechanics—mostly from France, but also from abroad. On the association’s website, members publish brief, lay summaries on specific issues, such as 3D modeling of the cathedral and historic fires at other medieval cathedrals. The association also pairs scientists with decision-makers and journalists seeking specific information and enables informal exchanges between scientists. Collaborative program ideas emerge “with disconcerting ease,” said the association’s president, Arnaud Ybert, a historian of medieval art at the University of Western Brittany in Brest, France.

Other efforts try to channel scientists’ enthusiasm from the top down. On 20 May, CNRS announced the creation of a Notre Dame task force, led by Regert and Dillmann. With police still present on-site to investigate the causes of the fire, the task force now helps define how to gather and sort materials from the cathedral so that no scientific information is lost, using technologies such as photogrammetry, remote sensing, and drones, Regert said. The task force is also beginning an inventory of existing knowledge and data about the cathedral at CNRS and in other institutions, some of it unpublished and scattered across different formats and media. “Our role is to take stock and gather everything so that we don’t start from a blank page,” Regert said. In the long term, the project aims to identify priority themes and coordinate research across a broad spectrum of disciplines, avoiding duplication, she said, adding that this effort would require money and staff.

Some institutions have already earmarked resources for Notre Dame research. For example, the Ile-de-France region’s research network on heritage and ancient materials, together with CNRS and the ministry of culture, will launch a special call for regional research projects, said Loïc Bertrand, one of the network’s coordinators. (He didn’t say how much funding would be available.)

Bertrand, who also leads IPANEMA, a research lab in Gif-sur-Yvette, France, dedicated to the high-tech study of heritage materials, added that France’s SOLEIL synchrotron has offered Notre Dame–related proposals a priority ticket to the facility’s 5% of “rapid access” beam time. For example, the research facility could help understand the effects of atmospheric pollution, fungi, and bacteria on materials such as metals, ceramics, wood, and composite materials.

The OPECST hearing took place a few days before the Senate examines a controversial draft bill for the restoration of Notre Dame, which French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to complete within 5 years. The bill sets up a national fund to gather donations with exceptionally high tax rebates; it also foresees the creation of a public body to oversee the restoration and allows the government to bypass rules in areas such as public procurement, city planning, and environmental protection. Critics have accused Macron of grandstanding and mistrusting his own institutions, urging him instead to carry out the work at a reasoned pace, within existing rules and organizations.