Hervé Claustre

Marine biogeochemist and committed advocate for making science accessible

Helping young people become aware of how the ocean works is a prerequisite for shaping them into enlightened citizens who understand the issues at stake and the decisions necessary to protect it.

Hervé Claustre has been involved in marine research at the Institut de la Mer de Villefranche (Sorbonne University-CNRS) for almost 40 years. His research subject? Phytoplankton. Meet a researcher, engineer and knowledge activist.

Humanity is grateful for the ocean. This could be the motto of the Ocean Institute, which was created less than a year ago by the Sorbonne University Alliance, with the aim of federating the scientific resources of the Alliance's partners around its eponymous theme. Hervé Claustre quickly grasped its potential for his research in marine robotics.

Engineer or researcher?

In 1962, Hervé Claustre was born in Carcassonne, an area known for its rugby. He grew up in a family environment far removed from science, and yet he developed a passion for aquariums. So much so that when he obtained his Brevet des collèges, his parents took him to visit the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco. "Today, I have professional exchanges with some of the people at the museum.”
He did his primary and secondary schooling in his hometown before leaving for Montpellier, in a preparatory class for agricultural engineering schools. Accepted in the National School of Agricultural Engineers (ENITA), in Dijon, where he thought to go into aquarium fish farming or food aquaculture. So when he was looking for a marine biology research laboratory for his final year's internship, researchers directed him to the Oceanological Observatory in Villefranche-sur-Mer. He arrived there in 1982 to study the lipid composition of plant plankton (phytoplankton) and its food value for animal plankton (zooplankton). "I enjoyed the laboratory work, which taught me that the research subject is important but not fundamental. It is the scientific approach, recurrent and iterative, that is interesting. The important thing is not the destination but the journey, as the saying goes. The transition from engineering to research started taking place.”
Hervé Claustre enrolled in a DEA in biological oceanology, having thought he would soon be in the workforce. For this, he headed for Paris and the Pierre and Marie Curie campus of Sorbonne University, where he learned the theory before coming back down to Villefranche for his internship. He then went on to do his thesis, at the end of which he spent a year as a post-doc at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory in England, where he focused on the chemotaxonomic study of phytoplankton pigments—the subject of his habilitation to direct research in 1994. "A simple measurement of their concentration in the water allowed us to determine the type of phytoplankton that was present in the sample.” With this expertise, which was unheard of in France, he knocked on the door of the CNRS in 1989.

The following year, he joined the Marine Physics and Chemistry Laboratory at the Villefranche Observatory, a pioneer in the use of satellites to characterize the presence of phytoplankton in the sea by measuring its color. "The greener the water, the more chlorophyll, and therefore the more phytoplankton there is. I could precisely measure the quantity of chlorophyll and characteristic pigments to know the quantity of phytoplankton and identify the families.

Robots in the waves

From 1991 onwards, Hervé Claustre took part in—or organized—several oceanographic campaigns. In 1995, he joined the University of California at Santa Barbara for a year to study the Antarctic marine environment.

At the age of 39, he became director of research at the CNRS. Two years later, in 2004, he set off again on a campaign in the Pacific Ocean. At the same time, he became interested in new sensors that could be used to characterize phytoplankton and marine particles in situ. "I was interested in this technology to acquire a lot of oceanographic information as efficiently as possible, with sensors that collect it autonomously, almost everywhere, day and night. That's my engineering side, the efficiency side.”

2005 is the year that the CNRS chose to award him its silver medal. It was also the year of a new transition. The researcher is now focusing on marine robotics. Underwater robots loaded with sensors that are deployed at sea and that emerge at regular intervals to transmit their data directly to the laboratories by satellite are appearing. "It was a path for the future that I wanted to explore at all costs, starting with technological development.” The Villefranche-sur-Mer Laboratory is developing, with the help of the French General Directorate of Armaments and within the framework of consortia, integrating academic laboratories and private engineering companies, underwater gliders and profiling robots capable of transmitting all sorts of measurements such as the pH of the water, the quantity of dissolved oxygen or even the spectrum of light. "The next generation of robots that we are currently finalizing will have image sensors that will analyse the type of zooplankton present in situ using artificial intelligence.”

This robotic project enabled him to obtain funding from the European Research Council (ERC) in 2010 to develop new robots and deploy a fleet of them in the oceans. "I started doing what I call 'armchair' oceanography. We no longer go to sea; the data comes directly to the laboratory.”
At the same time, Hervé Claustre is creating an international network for collaboration in marine robotics which, in 2016, includes the BGC-Argo project for a network of some 1000 intelligent profiling floats.

In 2021, the creation of an Ocean Institute at Sorbonne University was an opportunity to think about new projects. Hervé Claustre met the director, Christophe Prazuck, who explained the cross-disciplinary aspect of the Institute, combining hard sciences with humanities and social sciences. And above all, the need to disseminate what is produced there. It was destiny! The researcher has always made a point of popularizing his work. In fact, the departmental branch of the Petits débrouillards* was located at the Villefranche laboratory, on the premises where the robots are created. “Helping young people become aware of how the ocean works is a prerequisite for shaping them into enlightened citizens who understand the issues at stake and the decisions necessary to protect it.”
Thus, almost ten years ago, Hervé Claustre launched the ‘Adopt a float’ program, which allows a class to adopt a float and follow its scientific journey in real time. With his second ERC funding (REFINE), received in 2019, he even ensured a portion of the money went back into mediation actions.

En 2021, la création d’un Institut de l’Océan à Sorbonne Université est l’occasion de réfléchir à de nouveaux projets. Hervé Claustre rencontre son directeur, Christophe Prazuck, qui lui explique l’aspect transversal de l’Institut, mêlant sciences dures et sciences humaines et sociales. Et surtout, la nécessité de diffuser ce qui y est produit. Touché ! Le chercheur a toujours mis un point d’honneur à vulgariser ses travaux. C’est d’ailleurs au laboratoire de Villefranche qu’a été hébergée l’antenne départementale des Petits débrouillards, dans les locaux où sont créés les robots. « Sensibiliser notre jeunesse au fonctionnement de l’océan est un préalable pour en faire des citoyens éclairés qui comprennent les enjeux et les décisions à prendre pour le protéger. » Il a ainsi lancé, il y a près de dix ans, le programme Adopt a float, « qui permet à une classe d’adopter un flotteur et de suivre en temps réel son voyage scientifique ». Dans son second financement ERC (REFINE), reçu en 2019, il a également même obtenu qu’une partie de l’argent revienne à des actions de médiation.

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