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Outstanding Laboratory FIRST-TF (Laboratoire d'excellence)

Outstanding Laboratory FIRST-TF
(Laboratoire d'excellence)

Awarded by the French Agence Nationale de la Recherche

The FIRST-TF network gathers the main actors of French research in time and frequency, aiming at collaborative projects and at participating to the coordination the research in this domain. The expected financial support is of 10 M€ in 10 years. The two laboratories based in Besançon, FEMTO-ST and UTINAM, represent about 40% of this project.

This web page is a short introduction to the FIRST-TF Labex network. For details and updates please visit the official web site

1. Context

Time and frequency are the physical quantities which are measured today with the far most important precision, with a wide spectrum of applications. Time and Frequency (T/F) metrology can be considered as an excellence focused discipline, with multidisciplinary interfaces. In other terms, T/F metrology could be considered as a very specific scientific and technological discipline, with dedicated methods. But this is a science open to other scientific fields, from fundamental domains (fundamental physics) to applications (geodesy and geophysics, positioning & navigation, telecoms, etc.).
The increasing importance of time - and space-time - precise measurements are justified by new emerging research and development axis (tests of fundamental physics laws, high precision spectroscopy), leading to many challenging projects, both on ground and in space.
French laboratories have today an excellent position in a worldwide competitive context, in the different fields of T/F metrology (oscillators, atomic clocks, T/F transfer techniques, time scales) and in its applications (fundamental physics, spectroscopy, geodesy, etc.). They can be considered at the state of the art for their activities concern fundamental / applied research as well as services provided to other laboratories, industry or society (dissemination of precise signals, calibrations, legal time, synchronization of operational systems, etc.).
The T/F scientific community is already well organized in France, both on research and services aspects. This noteworthy organization comes mainly from the coordination of:
• Metrology laboratories (SYRTE, FEMTO-ST and UTINAM within the “Laboratoire Temps- Fréquence de Besançon - LTFB”) by the Laboratoire National de Métrologie et d’Essais (LNE) to pursue scientific and technological developments to improve the realization of SI units of time and frequency, and to provide socioeconomic players with national T/F references and calibration facilities
• T/F activities of laboratories (SYRTE, UTINAM, Geoazur) located in Observatories (Paris, Besançon and Côte d’Azur Observatories) by CNRS/INSU, in the frame of the “Moyen National Temps-Fréquence” (National T/F facilities). This ensemble of facilities provide signals for universe sciences applications (time stamps, T/F references for ranging, geodesy, etc.)
• T/F metrology, and more widely the space-time metrology, is included in a new “National specific Action”, called GRAM for Gravitation, References, Astronomy and Metrology. GRAM has been created in 2010 by CNRS/INSU, in interaction with other CNRS institutes (INP, IN2P3, INSIS), CNES, ... to build a national coordination around emerging projects using space-time metrology for fundamental physics.
• Laboratories involved in collaborative projects requiring high performance T/F reference signals. Some details on such collaborative projects are given in Section 4.2, but let us point out some major ones: space missions T2L2 and ACES/PHARAO, construction of the French atomic time scale TA(F), miniaturized clocks for embarked systems and - not the least - the metrological fiber network driven by LPL and SYRTE and recently proposed as an Equipex.
• T/F activities dedicated to space and defense applications, thanks to a collaborative sponsorship by the French space agency (CNES) and the French defense agency (DGA).
As T/F developments require state of the art technologies, the concerned laboratories have also a noticeable innovation potential, and a unique know-how for instrumentation and methodology. As a consequence, there are already interactions between laboratories and industry for the exploitation of innovative technologies. Nevertheless, one must admit that the transfer to French industry of innovative T/F concepts issued from laboratories has not been a full success in the past, in comparison to the laboratory excellence. Even if some operations have been successful (creation of start-up, transfers, ...), we have to deplore too many failures such as unexploited patents or renunciation of industrial developments.
Metrology has developed methods and tools, both instrumental and theoretical, for the measurement, the characterization and the optimization of signals, noises and uncertainties. Such a methodology is obviously essential for T/F domain, but it is also important for other instrumental disciplines. Various trainings on metrology are proposed today in universities, but there are not so visible, and very few students attend them, whereas many of them will have to use metrology basic principles in their future careers. The other finding concerns the continuing education of engineers working on industrial T/F projects. For instance, the emergence of huge programs such as GALILEO induces a strong need for a training of manpower in industry or space agencies. Another facet is the training of high school teachers, since the measurement of time and the study of periodic phenomena are one of the main taught subjects.
T/F laboratories are very active for outreach operations towards either schools or general public in the frame of local or national events. Even if some think that metrology is an obscure and not attractive science for non specialists, popularizing operations have been always successful, thanks to the exciting and mysterious aspects of space-time, and to the concrete presence of T/F in people life (for instance GPS, leap seconds, etc...).

2. Objectives of the FIRST-TF Network

Building a time and frequency network to gather the main actors of this domain, on a national scale, is really a challenging project: there are today about 40 declared partners in the FIRST-TF network, for a total manpower of ~90 permanent researchers, ~75 permanent engineers/technicians ~80 Ph-D and ~30 post-docs in laboratories and ~100 engineers/technicians in industrial companies.
The credibility of this project relies on the unquestionable excellence of the French teams and the declared will of these actors to improve exchanges and coordination in France. The fruitful exchanges we had during the preparation of this project, and the numerous support letters from laboratories, industry, agencies (Appendix 1.1) demonstrate the strong need to build the FIRST-TF network, with ambitious but realistic objectives in science, services, training / education, exploitation of innovative results and outreach.
The first goal of FIRST-TF network is to show visibly the French coordination of the T/F research community, and to ensure the best overlaps and complementarities between the existing coordination, as listed in § 1. This objective includes various aspects: increase of interactions and synergies between all T/F actors, creation of a “T/F expertise directory”, overview of the activities and needs to meet the expectations in terms of science, services, training / education, industry developments and outreach. This network will optimize the efficiency, thanks to an optimized coordination of responsibilities and steering between the universities / institutions hosting the laboratories (network nodes) and national organizations (CNRS, LNE, CNES, DGA).
The second objective of FIRST-TF is to improve the capacity of T/F teams to propose collaborative research projects:
- Specific operations in the frame of large existing projects (for instance ACES/PHARAO, metrological fiber network utilization, ...)
- New projects, with high risks, in a preliminary stage where the project is not mature enough to apply for classical funding (ERC, ...).
Such projects will be funded by FIRST-TF network, via calls to tender issued towards the network partners.
The third objective of FIRST-TF, which concerns innovation and exploitation of results, aims at increasing the interactions between laboratories and industry, with the will to improve the transfer of technology and know-how. The creation of a “Thematic valorization unit” will first offer an efficient interface, for all T/F innovation and transfer aspects, between laboratories, industry and existing or future valorization structures (valorization structures in universities, institutions, organizations, SATT, etc). This unit will have an overview of innovation within T/F domain - and at its interfaces -, and it will propose a roadmap for valorization: patents portfolio, transfer towards existing companies, creation of start-up, etc.
The fourth objective of FIRST-TF is to build innovative education and training offers on T/F metrology, with envisaged thematic extensions to high precision measurements and their applications. First, they will be implemented within existing university masters, with the objective to propose wider offers, in France and in Europe, if the first stage is successful. With the same spirit, a continuing offer on T/F metrology will be proposed to French engineers (industry, agencies) or teachers, with the will to extend it to European scale. Due to the scattered locations of lecturers, FIRST-TF will rely mainly on e-learning and distance training.
The last but not the least goal of FIRST-TF concerns outreach, and especially the popularizing operations towards schools and general public. Various aspects shall be explored: website dedicated to the popularization of T/F, public conferences, mobile exhibitions for schools, etc).

3. Current status

The project has been awarded the “Outstanding Laboratory” label (Laboratoire d’excellence) by the French Prime Minister François Fillon and the Minister of Research Valérie Pécresse during a ceremony in Paris, March 25 2011.

The expected financial support is of 10 M€ for five laboratories in 10 year. The exact amount will be confirmed by the ANR soon. Besançon represents not less than 40% of the research power involved in the project, thus approximately 40% of the grants.
The implementation of the FIRST-TF network will take place after the official kick-off, following the executive decision of the ANR.
News will be posted on the FIRST-TF official web site


Prof. Enrico Rubiola
FEMTO-ST, Dept. of Time and Frequency (ENSMM)
26, chemin de l'Epitaphe
F-25030 Besancon

Phone 33 381 402760
Fax 33 381 885714

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