In Conversation with John Bell

In Conversation with John Bell

Written by:
Name: Isa Woulfe
Profession: AORA-CSA / Marine Institute




John Bell, Director Healthy Planet, Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, European Commission, talks to AORA at the All-Atlantic Ocean Research Forum held in Brussels from 6-7 February 2020.


Where did the idea for the All-Atlantic Ocean Youth Forum originate?


We were working together with the scientific communities to look at the needs of the ocean. The needs of the ocean very quickly turned to the needs of the people who live around the ocean, and we realised that part of the issue is that there is a disconnect between what the people closest to ocean science know and what is important to the people who do not know what is going on in the oceans. We therefore, found the need to move out of the world of research and science and into the world of communication, thereby turning this research alliance into a real research community.


Most of us live our lives pointing inward into our land-based territories, our cities, our country-sides and the Atlantic. We now need to develop a new community of people who are pointing outwards towards the ocean and seeing it not just an expanse of beautiful and terrifying ocean, but actually a whole community of people around the ocean from pole to pole - from the different peoples who are living around the northern parts of Finland or Canada, to the people who are living in the warmer waters of the Caribbean, to the challenges of those who are living in different conditions in Africa, Brazil and the different parts of Europe and the United States.


Science's most important value in the decade of decision, is that we are giving people answers to the questions that they are going to need to solve at local level.


When we looked around the different rooms in the United States, Canada, Brazil, South Africa and the European Union, we saw a lot of truly impressive men in suits, very busy doing hugely complicated work and our biggest difficulty was how do we engage not simply with people outside of the room but with the future.


One of my thoughts was if we were going to build a community around the Atlantic, the best way to do that is to start with the people who are going to be most affected and most involved. These are the young researchers - the most creative, engaged and leading thinkers - who have a natural ability to network, communicate, build bridges and who have a great interest in being able to move, work and research around the Atlantic.

My hope was to build a community that begins with a group of young leaders. They are today's leading thinkers. They will take forward the work that has been done and give it new life and shape, but their key role will be to make connections locally in all the different places where people live and work and inform communities about what they need to know about the ocean and what the ocean needs from them. It is the beginning of a natural and organic way of developing a community around the ocean where science is serving society.


The European Union is about the power of convening people. We can solve some of the most impossible problems that we have together that would not be possible separately. The European Union's mission at the moment is to be carbon neutral by 2050. It is the fifth grade mission of the European Union and we started with trying to make peace out of coal steel together. Then we brought and built a market together. Then we built a currency union together. We peacefully reunited the continent together. The European lesson, because of our history, is that you can do very difficult things together that you can very seldom do yourself. Bringing different attitudes and cultures and minds and energy and creativity into the conversation is what makes the future possible, and the European Union really operates in the future tense.


How do you see the Youth Ambassadors interacting with politicians, with policy decision makers, and with communities as you say on the ground?


It is an invitation to them and a challenge to inhabit this space where they are at the leading edge of their fields and professions. They will have to define their roles. The knowledge is there for them to shape and create and use as they wish, and they should be challenging people like us to say, "This is what we need from science. This is where policy needs the connection, and this is what we bring."


It is really to invite them in to create the space for themselves and the next generations of young researchers and build the kind of community of practice and vision that we need for the future.


What is your reflection on the important points that the Commissioner made this morning?


The whole room of about 700 people were energised by the Commissioner’s really clear message of commitment and support. She reminded us that what we need to think about is how we can act together, that we need to listen and learn from one another, and that we need to take the instruments that are there and make them new and useful.

 She has this extraordinary portfolio of research and innovation of science, but also of education, culture, sport and other areas, and she was talking about how we need to find the vernacular language that people speak when they are going to make decisions and change. So it was a really energizing stir for all of us, and it was great to hear that we have her full political support and engagement for the period ahead.