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The future of sustainable ocean science



Westminster Central Hall

May 9th ushered in the 9th National Oceanography Centre (NOC) Association meeting, held among the crowds, statues, flags, and banners, at Central Hall in an unseasonably chilly and rainy Westminster. But it was the first such meeting where the University of Bristol was represented, and I was honoured to fly our own flag, for both University of Bristol and the Cabot Institute for the Environment.

NOC is – currently – a part of the Natural Environment Research Council (one of the UK Research Councils, under the umbrella of UKRI), but is undergoing a transformation in the very near future to an independent entity, and a charitable organisation in its own right aimed at the advancement of science. If you’ve heard of NOC, you’re likely aware of the NOC buildings in Southampton (and the sister institute in Liverpool). However, the NOC Association is a wider group of UK universities and research institutes with interests in marine science, and with a wider aim: to promote a two-way conversation between scientists and other stakeholders, from policy makers to the infrastructure organisations that facilitate - and build our national capability in - oceanographic research.

The meeting started with an introduction by the out-going chair of the NOC Association, Professor Peter Liss from the University of East Anglia, who is handing over the reins to Professor Gideon Henderson from Oxford University. The newly independent NOC Board will face the new challenges of changing scientific community, including the challenge of making the Association more visible and more diverse.

Professor Peter Liss, outgoing chair of the NOC Association, giving the welcome talk

As well as the changes and challenges facing the whole scientific community, there are some exciting developments in the field of UK and international marine science in the next two years, which are likely to push the marine science agenda forward. In the UK, the Foreign Commonwealth Office International Ocean Strategy will be released in the next few months, and there is an imminent announcement of a new tranche of ecologically-linked UK Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) for consultation. On the international stage, a new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report on the Oceans and Cryosphere is due to be released in September; the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) report on deep sea mining will be announced in the next few months; and the next United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC ) Conference of Parties (COP) climate change conference, scheduled for the end of this year in Chile, has been branded the “Blue COP”.

The afternoon was dedicated to a discussion of the upcoming UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, starting in 2021. With such a wealth of national and international agreements and announcements in next two years, the UN Decade will help to “galvanise and organise” the novel, scientific advice in the light of ever increasing and cumulative human impacts on the oceans.

Alan Evans, Head of the International and Strategic Partnerships Office and a Marine Science Policy Adviser, giving a presentation on the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development

The UN Decade is aligned strongly with the key global goals for sustainable development and has two overarching aims: to generate ocean science, and to generate policy and communication mechanisms and strategies. The emphasis is being placed on “science for solutions”, bringing in social scientists and building societal benefits: making the oceans cleaner, safer, healthier and – of course – all in a sustainable way. 

Research and development priorities include mapping the seafloor; developing sustainable and workable ocean observing systems; understanding ecosystems; management and dissemination of open access data; multi-hazard warning systems (from tsunamis to harmful algal blooms); modelling the ocean as a compartment of the Earth system; and pushing for a robust education and policy strategy to improve “ocean literacy”. 

Whilst these are exciting areas for development, the scheme is still in its very early stages, and there’s a lot to do in the next two years. As the discussion progressed, it was clear that there is a need for more “joined-up” thinking regarding international collaboration. There are so many international marine science-based organisations such that collaboration can be “messy” and needs to be more constructive: we need to be talking on behalf of each other. On a national level, there is a need to build a clear UK profile, with a clear strategy, that can be projected internationally. The NOC Association is a good place to start, and Bristol and the Cabot Institute for the Environment can play their parts.

Lastly, a decade is a long time. If the efforts are to be sustained throughout, and be sustainable beyond The Decade, we need to make sure that there is engagement with Early Career Researchers (ECRs) and mid-career researchers, as well as robust buy-in from all stakeholders. Whilst there are several national-scale organisations with fantastic programs to promote ECRs, such as the Climate Linked Atlantic Sector Science (CLASS) fellowship scheme and the Marine Alliance for Science and Technology for Scotland (MASTS) doctoral training program, this needs to be extended to ambitious international ECR networking schemes. Together with the future generation of researchers, we can use the momentum of the UN Decade make marine research sustainable, energised and diverse.

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This blog is written by Dr Kate Hendry, a reader in Geochemistry in the University of Bristol School of Earth Sciences and a committee member for the Cabot Institute for the Environment Environmental Change Theme. She is the UoB/Cabot representative on the NOC Association, a member of the Marine Facilities Advisory Board (MFAB), and a co-chair of a regional Southern Ocean Observing System (SOOS) working group.


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