Cyril Kao is the Director of the Department for Academic Partnerships, Regional and European Affairs at INRAE. He is tasked with implementing INRAE’s partnership policy with university research facilities, academic campuses that support collaboration between various institutions and which are spreading rapidly in France. He is also responsible for forging partnerships to develop research programmes and set up projects with Europe, which, according to Cyril, is “a vast area for programmes, means, and opportunities that INRAE’s research policy must take into account”.
A lifelong passion for water
As a teenager, Cyril was interested in the scientific method and experimentation. He enrolled in an agricultural university preparation programme and was accepted at the Institut National Agronomique de Paris-Grignon (INA-PG, now AgroParisTech). While there, his courses in fluid mechanics and an initial internship at Cemagref (which later became IRSTEA) swept him into water science and public works engineering. He eventually earned a degree in rural engineering, water and forestry from ENGREF. After a scientific cooperation project in the field of agriculture with the French Embassy in Egypt, an experience he found “exceptional”, Cyril enthusiastically returned to Cemagref. “Not only did the topics interest me, but I was able to co-develop my post as an engineer-researcher with my own scientific project.” He worked on his PhD in hydrology, focusing on agricultural hydraulics and understanding how wetlands functioned. “It was fascinating to conduct academic research while helping the government on a tangible public works project. At that time – the late 1990s – we were at a turning point between the traditional agricultural policy of the years of major rural development in France and a growing awareness of environmental issues,” says Cyril. Meanwhile, he was co-directing theses, supervising students and teaching fluid mechanics and hydrology at INA-PG, ENGREF and the Pierre and Marie Curie University (UPMC).
Learning and teaching: scientific continuity and enrichment
As a researcher, teaching the new generation is both a duty and an asset
These first few years of his career were instrumental in sharpening his focus. “Early on I wanted to do scientific research in connection with higher education and public policymaking. This became the common thread through my entire career,” says Cyril. “Like the teachers who won me over to science, sharing my knowledge has always been a big motivator for me. I’m convinced that as a researcher, teaching the new generation is both a duty and an asset for the research we do: it’s mutually beneficial.”
Cyril’s career choices have continued to advance the values he holds dear. In 2008, he received his accreditation to supervise research and joined AgroParisTech, which had just been created following the merger of INA-PG, ENGREF and the École nationale supérieure des industries agricoles et alimentaires (ENSIA), as a Deputy Scientific Director. “Our mission was to rebuild a scientific policy for an entire institution. This was a highly stimulating challenge at a time when higher education was being completely restructured with the national ‘Campus Plan’.” Four years later, he became the director of the ABIES Doctoral School, with 400 young PhD candidates with “various profiles but each earnestly driven by a strong calling.”
Cyril headed up the institution while participating in the strategic positioning of the school within the restructuring associated with the University of Paris-Saclay project and while getting ready for the school’s five-year evaluation by AERES. “It was a huge responsibility and two very intense years,” says Cyril. He then joined the Ministry of Agriculture and Food in a “central administrative position coordinating research and innovation policy at the national, European and international levels”.
From education restructuring to the INRA and IRSTEA merger
Cyril promotes partnerships between academic and applied research stakeholders in agriculture, supports dialogue with professional unions and technical institutes, and mobilises agricultural education for experiments and demonstrations in agricultural high schools and their farms. He maintains constant contact with higher education and public research institutions such as IRSTEA and INRA, which he aided as they undertook steps to merge. “I had a front-row seat to the creation of INRAE.” Cyril was on the “oversight side” of these institutions. “The Ministry of Agriculture has an important role to play in the overall, collective and complementary initiatives of research and innovation in France.” Cyril was committed to ensuring that the tripod of “science which enlightens, policy which decides and administration which supports” could become stable and operate smoothly to address both the needs on the ground and collective priorities.
A European outlook
In 2018, Cyril joined INRA as the Director of Regional Policy, Higher Education and Europe to continue to be involved in the creation of INRAE, and especially its connections with higher education and European partnerships. “After more than four years in an administrative position where I had worked in both France and Brussels, I was able to get a fresh perspective at a research institute and ensure that what I had previously been able to achieve could be of benefit.”
- 1993-1994 : Dual degrees in engineering from the Paris Institute of Technology for Life, Food and Environmental Sciences (AgroParisTech) and the French National School of Forestry (ENGREF)
- 1995-1996 : Deputy Attaché for Science, French Embassy in Egypt
- 1996-2007 : Research Engineer on the “Agricultural Hydraulics” team, then team leader for the “Transfers in Agri-Hydro-Systems” and “Hydro-Agri” teams at Cemagref (IRSTEA). PhD in Hydrology (2002) and Accreditation to direct research (HDR) from UPMC (2008) .
- 2008-2014 : Deputy Scientific Director AgroParisTech.
- 2012-2014 : Director of the ABIES Doctoral School.
- 2014-2018 : Head of the Department for Research, Innovation and International Cooperation, Ministry of Agriculture and Food
- 2018-2020 : Director of Regional Policy, Higher Education and Europe, INRA .