The Dubliner driving environmental innovation in Europe

Research lives: Dr John Bell, director of Healthy Planet, DG Research & Innovation, European Commission

You have received the 2019 University College Dublin alumni award in research, innovation and impact. What did you study at UCD, and how did you move into the European Commission?

"I went to UCD in 1983. I grew up off the South Circular Road, I went to school at Synge Street and I was the first person in my family to go to college. I studied English and Philosophy and I did a masters on Anglo-Irish studies. That set me up later to do a D.Phil at Oxford University on Séamus Heaney on cultural nationalism. Then I went to work with the European Commission. The Berlin Wall had come down and we could see a new Europe taking shape. It was very exciting.

What type of work have you done with the European Commission?

I've worked a lot as a strategist on transitions – on bringing Poland into the EU, rebuilding Albania and keeping Northern Macedonia out of war. On EU-wide policy, I worked with David Byrne on tobacco control. I was particularly passionate about that one, because my father died of lung cancer when I was 10.


Later on, I worked on consumer digital rights, and with Máire Geoghegan-Quinn I helped to set up Horizon 2020, the world’s largest public research and innovation programme, which involved arguing for more resources to be put into this area. Since then I have produced a new bioeconomy policy for Europe and now I am working on climate.

What do you mean by the term bioeconomy?

It’s a way of deriving sustainable value from natural resources. It connects different natural ways and biomass streams, and generates sustainable, low carbon, post-fossil products and services that respect the primacy of food, the needs of biodiversity and the planetary boundaries – mainly in rural and coastal areas.

An example might be transforming waste into biochemicals for use in cosmetics. Ireland has been a leader here, and UCD is particularly strong in bringing together food companies and rural communities to make more of the bioeconomy.

You are now director for Healthy Planet – what does your job involve on a daily basis?

What we do is take the long-term view of how the European Commission uses knowledge to address the issues relating to climate change. For one thing, we need to decarbonise six times faster than the current rate to transition to a carbon-neutral EU by 2050. So we look at that across multiple areas, including the bioeconomy, building and transport.

We also need to move research and innovation from observing to setting the direction on how to meet the challenges of decarbonising and adapting to climate change. We have initiatives on water, biodiversity and the circular economy, and the ocean is a huge element.

We need to better understand deep ocean currents, nutrient cycles and how the ocean affects weather patterns. Ireland can contribute hugely here, and we already have networks of research teams looking at the Atlantic.

What’s the key to making it all work?

Co-operation. A shared resource, such as the local environment, can be an effective catalyst for diplomacy.

What do you do to switch off from work?

I spend time with my wife Jackie, whom I met at UCD, and keep up with my three kids Olivia, Sean and Daniela. I have also been working on a novel for the last 30 years. It’s set in the Dublin of my childhood. I’m pretty sure it will never get finished, but it’s my way of changing focus.”

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation