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PIREN-Seine: an interdisciplinary research program on the scale of a basin

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  • Project initiators: CNRS and Sorbonne University
  • Partners: 10 partners active in water management in the Sein basin; 22 research teams
  • Duration of project: since 1989
  • Cost of project: about €100,000/year

Context of how the project emerged:

In the 1980s the CNRS set up “Interdisciplinary Environmental Research Programs” (PIREN) for the major French rivers (Rhone, Rhine, Garonne, etc.). In parallel, the Director of the Seine Basin of the time, M. Brachet, wanted researchers to focus on the river’s management and the design of developments, given the complexity of the phenomena involved in the huge Seine basin (75,000 km²) and the multitude of bodies responsible for management, which lacked global vision and foresight.

Ghislain de Marsily, the program’s first director, was given the task of setting up the dialogue required between the basin’s institutional partners and research bodies.



Strategy and objectives

Since 1989, PIREN Seine has federated 22 research teams, backed by 10 universities and engineering schools, 6 national research institutes, with more than 100 researchers and PhD students, and the water managers of the Seine basin. Relying on a multidisciplinary scientific approach, the program has led to the development of tools and methods designed to provide understanding of how the basin functions, link the flows of water and materials with the practices of the populations living in the basin, and thus achieve better qualitative and quantitative water resource management. At the core of the research carried out in the framework of PIREN-Seine is the precept that human beings and the environment form one and the same system which should be studied as such.

PIREN-Seine is endowed with flexibly organized governance, so that it can adapt to challenges as they arise and ensure a collective decision-making system. Planned in phases of 4 years, the program is supervised by a director chosen from among their peers and the basin’s partner management bodies. It is responsible for following-up research actions throughout the duration of the phase, and establishing links between them and the partners.

Since 1989, PIREN-Seine has dealt with a large number of themes. Some of them are deeply rooted in the program and are representative of its interdisciplinary nature.

  1. The evolution of water quality in the Seine basin: this theme mixes, without being limited to, physicochemical, biological, and historical studies. Present since the beginning of the program, this theme has been pursued by PIREN-Seine for 30 years, making it possible to carry out long-term, in-depth analyses.
  2. Agriculture and its effects on water and aquatic habitats: begun in 1998 during the launch of phase III of PIREN-Seine, the study of agricultural practices and their impact encompasses a large number of scientific domains. This theme has widened over the years to include detailed agro-feedstuff analyses, and formulate realistic scenarios for tomorrow.
  3. Contaminants, their trajectory and fate in natural environments: studied punctually since the beginning of the program, they became a major preoccupation of PIREN-Seine in 2002. Analyzed through their s
    ocio-economic sources, their effects on living organisms, and the social perception of the pollution they cause, contaminants bring together many researchers with a wide range of expertise to gain global insight into the theme.


The project’s innovative characteristics


PIREN-Seine is characterized by its capacity to federate and bring into dialogue:

  • different disciplines (hydrology, hydrochemistry, microbiology, etc. as well as more recently sociology, history and political science).
  • different sectors of the public: scientists work with the administrations responsible for managing the basin and industrial companies to determine the research themes, experiment, model, reconstitute, and so forth. Its horizontal functioning, in close consultation with the basin managers, is one of the cornerstones of PIREN-Seine’s long-term success.

The results are made available to all. Since 2016, PIREN-Seine has had a “Knowledge Transfer” team that communicates the knowhow generated by the researchers to its partners, environment professionals and the general public.

Another innovative aspect of the project is its duration (30 years in 2019!) and its governance.

Results and perspectives

The program’s initial objectives have widened considerably since its first years. Understanding the functioning of the fluvial continuum in its entirety proved necessary in order to act on local issues. An original approach adopted to model the entire hydrographic network was developed, and modeling has become an obligatory aspect of the research work done by PIREN-Seine.

The number of fields of research was therefore increased:

  • During the 1990s, flows of materials (suspended matter, nutriments, organic matter, oxygen, micropollutants), their sources, their places of storage, their impact, and the means for combating pollution and hydrographic extremes.
  • At the beginning of the 2000s, the inclusion of the river system in the basin as a whole, with for example the interactions with industrial and agricultural activities and the inclusion of the long-term to fuel forward planning for the basin’s future.
  • In correlation with the framework directive on water (DCE), new studies were performed in 2007 on detecting new contaminants, the place of rivers in cities, and global changes.
  • Since the 2010s, PIREN-Seine has also worked on the adaptations of the basin to the effects of climate change.


The knowledge established on the basin’s hydraulic, biogeochemical and institutional functioning has led to setting objectives for treating effluents and launching new actions for the river’s ecological restoration and for more environmentally friendly agriculture. 

How can this project be duplicated on other rivers?

Yes, this program can be used as a model for other rivers. The main message is that it is necessary to start long-term multidisciplinary research programs, with stable and loyal teams working in close collaboration with the basin’s managers and authorities.


 #Seine #Governance #Research  #Interdisciplinarity

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Photo credits: PIREN-Seine

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