Alumni Update | Issue Six 2014
Edouard Michel
Officer for International Affairs, CNRS-INEE
Bachelor of Arts (Indigenous Studies) 2007

Founded in 1939, France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) is one of the world’s leading public institutions for fundamental science research. It’s the largest of its kind in Europe, with a budget of €3.4bn (AUD $5bn) and over 32,000 staff – and at the centre of it all is UniSA graduate Edouard Michel.
Edouard Michel
Edouard works for the CNRS ‘Institute of Ecology and Environment’ (INEE) division, managing its international connections with a particular focus on northern countries. As something of a scientific diplomat, Edouard leads development of institutional and scientific partnerships between the CNRS and foreign institutions, while keeping abreast of international policies and conferences.

Edouard has previously worked with UNESCO on world heritage and ethnoecology projects, and on the Mediterranean Action Plan of the United Nations Environment Programme. He also contributed to a French national working group on tropical forest policy to prepare for the 2012 Rio+20 conference.

Edouard spoke to us at what he says is a pivotal moment for the INEE, as it aims to extend its reach further across the globe.

What’s the best thing about your current job?
My job is at the crossroad of scientific research, international cooperation and societal challenges. These have always been the fields I like and I am happy I don’t have to choose between any of them. But it’s challenging at the same time, since there are no easy combinations between these aspects, and the progress can only be fully measured in the long run. The job also keeps me travelling – usually to Brussels, where most of the EU institutions are gathered – and I get to meet and share ideas with people from so many countries and backgrounds. There is always something new happening.

What are the key projects you’re involved with at the moment?
The major topic for me right now is Horizon 2020 – the new EU Framework Programme for Science and Innovation. This is a huge package aimed at reinforcing European integration, by proposing new fields of investigation to the European Commission, tackling societal challenges, and creating important funding opportunities for everything from blue sky research to industrial innovation.

Another hot topic is Future Earth, a new international research initiative that will integrate major international research programmes into one, fostering global sustainability. CNRS and France have partnered with organisations from the United States, Sweden, Japan, Canada, and South American delegates in a bid to jointly operate the international secretariat.

What are the biggest environmental issues in France and the EU right now?
Climate change is the major environmental issue in France, the EU, and probably anywhere in the world. Most of Europe has quite a balanced climate overall – but it’s also highly urbanised, with very fragmented ecosystems. Another serious issue is health in relation to the environment. The European Commission is famous for its regulation standards, and is enforcing strong measures to limit the discharge of pollutants into the environment. The EU environmental directives are often quite ambitious, and huge progress is being accomplished regarding water treatment in particular. However, the air of major cities such as Paris and London has exceeded pollution thresholds more often than ever since the start of 2014. There is also a debate in France regarding the implementation of an ecological tax.

Could you tell us more about the ethnoecological research you conducted in the Pacific, with UNESCO and French government support?
This ethno-ecology research fieldwork was my first experience with UNESCO. It got me travelling to the Pacific Islands in 2008, to understand how local people deal with climate change and sea-level rise.

In Pacific atolls, storm surges, tidal waves, tsunamis, and cyclones are but a few events to deal with when it comes to growing crops in poor coral soil, and collecting drinking water. Agricultural and environmental knowledge are part of a social transmission that is nowadays often difficult in the atolls; with young people leaving, imported goods making agriculture somewhat obsolete, and the traditional way of life there. Some islands were also dramatically reshaped during World War II to build airfields and harbours for military boats, changing the soil hydrology and worsening coastal erosion. Climate change comes on top of other issues; these phenomena have a human side, a social side, a historical context. A future disappearance of the atolls was a dark side – this was about people’s lives, and their homes. Although not always picture-perfect, living in atolls and being confronted by hints of dramatic events was quite a contrasting experience.

What advice do you have for people who want to enter your industry?
There are many paths to a career in environmental policy. While some people start directly, others get there after field projects or research, or from completely different places. My advice would simply be to try and acquire a truly multidisciplinary profile, and an advanced academic background is always an asset. A multidisciplinary profile strengthens the ability to adapt skills to uncharted territories – and that is what will matter in the long run, for a new task, a new job, or a new career.

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