The origins of the CNRS

France is one of the first countries having created scientific institutes among modern nations and the French Academy of Sciences was created by Louis XIV in 1666. Old institutions are still very active in France, such as the Station biologique de Roscoff (1872) or the Institut Pasteur (1888). The history of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) has its roots embedded in this early efforts to facilitate the national science and development of inventions.


In 1901, the Fund for Scientific Research (CRS: Caisse des Recherches Scientifiques) was created to help and fund research laboratories. This organism rather helped laboratories to acquire equipment instead of acknowledging discoveries. A series of Nobel Prizes in Chemistry and Physics come for French researchers in the following years: Pierre & Marie Curie (1903), Henri Becquerel (1903), Henri Moissan (1906), Gabriel Lippmann (1908), Marie Curie (1911), Victor Grignard (1912), Paul Sabatier (1912).


The National Board of Scientific and Industrial Research and inventions (ONSRII: office national de recherches scientifiques et industrielles et des inventions) was created in 1922 to "provoke, coordinate and promote scientific researchs of any kind". Laboratory headquarters set in the Bellevue Castle in Meudon.

Watch the movie about the history of the Bellevue Castle in Meudon (French version)

In order to provide grants to researchers outside the frame of universities, the National Fund for Sciences (CNS: Caisse Nationale des Sciences) was created in 1930, spurred on by Jean Perrin who was awarded the Nobel Prize of Physics four years before. This organism, created concomitantly with the reception of the Nobel Prize of Physics by Louis de Broglie (1929), allowed a better autonomy for french researchers.


The fusion of the two former funding agencies into a single one constituted a major step towards the unification of French Research. The CRS and the CNS were merged into the National Fund for Scientific Research (CNRS: Caisse Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique) in 1935, year of reception of the Nobel Prize of Physics by Frédéric and Irène Joliot-Curie.  Jean Perrin was appointed director of this organism and also presided the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSRS: Conseil Supérieur de la Recherche Scientifique) created two years before, in 1933, to coordinate all the organisms dealing about research.


The Central Service of Scientific Research (SCRS: Service Central de la Recherche Scientifique) was created in 1936 and was entrusted to Henri Laugier. This service managed scientific activities and established the Ministry of National Education responsible for French research.


The ONSRII was replaced in 1938 by the National Center for Applied Scientific Research (CNRSA: Centre National de Recherche Scientifique Aplliquée) and its management was entrusted to Henri Longchambon. 

For sake of simplicity and unification, the former organisms and services CSRS, CNRS, SCRS and CNRSA are merged into a single National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS: Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique). This national organism was created 75 years ago, the 19th of October 1939 [decision published the 24th of October in the Official Journal of the French Republic]. 

First directors of the CNRS

Henri LONGCHAMBON (* 1896 - † 1969) and Henri LAUGIER (* 1888 - † 1973) 

1939-1940 - First directors of the CNRS

H. LongChambon, former director of the CNRSA became director of the section for applied research while H. Laugier, former director of the SCRS became director of the section fo pure research.

Henri LAUGIER (* 1888 - 1973)


​Joined General de Gaulle in London to resist the Nazi occupation and be part of the provisional governenment of the French Republic. He will be finally named Under-Secretary-General for the United Nations in 1946 and participate to the writting of the universal declaration of human rights.

Charles JACOB (* 1878 - 1962)


Director during troubled times of Nazi occupation and the governement of Vichy.

 Jean MERCIER (* 1901 - 1971)


​Dean of Bordeaux, he becomes director of the CNRS because its direction moved to this town (in June) to escape the Nazi invasion. The direction of the CNRS will come back to Paris in July. He will be dismissed by the new Minister of Education in August.

Frédéric JOLIOT (* 1900 - 1958)


Nobel Prize in Chemistry with his spouse Irène Curie in 1935, he was responsible of getting back scientific material from Germany. His strong desire to move the center toward a more applied science in relation with industry, he leaves the CNRS, upon request of General de Gaulle, to create the CEA

Georges TEISSIER (* 1900 - 1972)


​Former member of the Station Biologique de Roscoff and resistant during the 2nd world war, Frédéric Joliot chose Georges Teissier as a vice-director of the CNRS before leaving his position when he left to create the CEA.

Gaston DUPOUY (* 1900 - 1985)


His ambition has been to develop the CNRS as a state-of-the-art center to study new disciplines that do not fall under the conventional universitary teaching. He also created the highest French scientific award: the CNRS gold medal that he himself received in 1957 after Emile Borel (1954), Louis de Broglie (1955) and Jacques Hadamard (1956).

The CNRS today

The CNRS, thus, has a long tradition of scientific excellence and constitutes today the most productive center of research in the world according to the Scimago Institutions Rankings. It also remains for the third year in the top 100 innovators in the world established by Thomson-Reuters.

To get an overview of the CNRS, one can watch the movie made by the French film director  Jean-Jacques Beineix (French version).

French version

English version

The CNRS is nowadays present everywhere in France (see map) thanks to its organization in regional delegations. 

A thematic organization into 41 sections is also present and allows the coverage of the whole variety of scientific activities: from maths to social and human sciences, though life sciences or physics. Each set of sections are grouped under the supervision of so-called national institutes.

As for my personal example: I am a permanent research scientist (chargé de recherche) in the section 16 of the CNRS: "Chemistry for living organisms and medicinal chemistry. Design and properties of compounds of biological interest".

This section is depending on the CNRS National Institute of Chemistry (INC) and my regional delegation (Alps), responsible for the French departments of Drôme, Isère, Savoie and Haute-Savoie is located just beside the IBS, the Institute of Structural Biology, where I work.


René PELLAT (* 1936 -  2003)  ■ Physicist


  • Silver medal of the CNRS (1972)

  • Alexandre Joannidès award of the French Academy of Sciences (1982)

Edouard BREZIN (* 1938)    Physicist


  • Awarded the prize Ampère of the French Academy of Sciences (1981)

  • Director of the physics department of the ENS (1986-1991)

  • Member of the French Academy of Sciences (1991)

Gérard MEGIE (* 1946 -  2004)  ■ Climatologist


  • Silver medal of the CNRS (1987)

  • Knight of the National Order of Merit (1990)

  • Knight of the Legion of Honour (2001)

Bernard MEUNIER (* 1947)  ■ Chemist


  • Silver medal of the CNRS (1991)

  • Knight of the Legion of Honour (2006)

Catherine BRECHIGNAC (* 1946)  ■ Physicist


  • Officer of the Legion of Honour (2005)

  • Associate member of the Royal Academy for Science and the Arts of Belgium (2010)

Pierre JACQUINOT (* 1910 - 2002)  ■ Physicist


  • Member of the French Academy of Sciences (1966)

  • Gold medal of the CNRS (1978)

Jean COULOMB (* 1904 - 1999)  ■ Geophysicist


  • Member of the French Academy of Sciences (1960)

  • Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour (1991)

François KOURILSKY (* 1934 -  2014)  ■ Physician & biologist


  • Officer of the Legion of Honour

  • Officer in the National Order of Merit

Serge FENEUILLE (* 1940)  ■ Physicist


  • Knight of the Legion of Honour

  • Knight in the National Order of Merit

  • Knight of the Academic Palms

Pierre PAPON (* 1939)  ■ Physicist




Jean-Jacques PAYAN (* 1935)  ■ Mathematician


  • Knight of the Legion of Honour

  • Officer in the National Order of Merit

  • Commander of the Academic Palms

Jacques DUCUING (* 1932)  ■ Physicist


  • Knight of the Legion of Honour

  • Commander in the National Order of Merit (1995)

  • Silver medal of the CNRS

Robert CHABBAL (* 19XX)  ■ Physicist


  • Commander of the Legion of Honour

Bernard GREGORY (* 1919 - 1977)   ■ Physicist


  • Officer of the Legion of Honour

  • Commander of the French Academic Palms

Hubert CURIEN (* 1924 - 2005)  ■ Physicist


  • Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour

  • Commander in the National Order of Merit

  • Commander of the French Academic Palms

Guy AUBERT (* 1938)  ■ Physicist




Catherine BRECHIGNAC (* 1946)  ■ Physicist


  • Silver medal of the CNRS (1994)

  • Knight of the Legion of Honour (1996)

Geneviève BERGER (* 1955)  ■ Physician & biophysicist


  • Silver medal of the CNRS (1994)

  • Knight of the Legion of Honour (1998)

  • Commander of the Academic Palms (2000)

Bernard LARROUTUROU (* 1958)  ■ Mathematician


  • Knight of the National Order of Merit (1998)

  • Knight of the Legion of Honour (2003)

Arnold MIGUS (* 1948)  ■ Physicist


  • Associate member of the american National Academy of Engineering

  • Knight of the Legion of Honour (2006)

Directors general

Noteworthily, the CNRS is also present in Europe and in many cities in the world (see map). This network allows, in close contact with corresponding ambassades, to initiate and maintain collaborations worldwide.

President directors general

Alain FUCHS (* 1953)  ■ Chemist


  • Knight of the Order of Academic Palms (1996)

  • Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry (2006)

  • Knight of the Legion of Honour (2010)

Antoine PETIT (* 1960)  ■ Mathematician


  • Knight of the Legion of Honour (2010)

  • Knight of the National Order of Merit (2014)

© 2014-2020 Virgile Adam. All rights reserved

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