Fairness and capacity in ocean science as we approach the UN’s decade of ocean science for sustainable development

J Murray Roberts, University of Edinburgh

2020 was billed as the ocean’s super-year. It was the year of the United Nations Oceans Conference . It was a critical year in the negotiation of a new treaty to manage biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. And it was the culmination of two years’ planning “the science we need for the ocean we want ” ahead of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.

But as we know, 2020 has been the year of coronavirus. Alongside all other aspects of human life, the global ocean community had to rapidly replan and adapt. In response, June 2020 saw a remarkable outpouring of online webinars, conferences and discussion forums tackling the issues of ocean management and sustainable use.

HMS Challenger

This blog is based on a panel I joined on 3 June 2020 as part of the World Economic Forum’s Virtual Ocean Dialogues. The organisers asked me to “speak to the need for science collaboration and data sharing on a global scale and for the High Seas/Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction. It would be helpful if you can additionally share what’s already in place in this regard and identified gaps, as well as information about the iAtlantic program“. Feeling slightly daunted, I wondered how best to tackle this challenge, and decided to start back at the birth of deep-sea biology with the story of Charles Wyville Thomson, and the HMS Challenger Expedition.

It was almost 150 years ago that Charles Wyville Thomson from the University of Edinburgh set sail on the HMS Challenger. Over four years, from 1872 to 1876, they would cover 70,000 nautical miles, discover the deepest parts of our planet and describe over 4,000 new species.

Back then the ocean was vast, unexplored and full of exciting new resources. No one believed human activities could do any permanent damage to this vast virgin territory.

Pressure on the oceans

But fast forward to the present and it’s clear the global oceans are at the nexus of the climate crisis, our future food security and may perhaps become a new frontier for mineral exploitation.

And much of this shared ocean territory lies far offshore in areas outside any nation’s jurisdiction. This is 95% of the global ocean’s volume – by far the largest space for life on earth.

Here the water column is the territory of great whales, migratory turtles and bizarre mid-water plankton. The deep seabed supports cold-water coral and sponge grounds, hydrothermal vents and diverse ecosystems in the muds that accumulate on the seafloor.

These areas beyond national jurisdiction are managed for the Common Heritage of Mankind through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – and we are presently witnessing the negotiation of a new legal instrument for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction.

The open ocean is home to a myriad of creatures from microscopic plankton to migratory giants.

As land creatures, we humans struggle to understand the scale and significance of the ocean. We might know that about 70% of our planet’s surface is covered by water, but how many of us know that the ocean has absorbed over 90% of global heating, and around a third of the carbon dioxide released since the Industrial Revolution?

Our oceans are now changing faster than at any point in geological history, and the symptoms of these changes are becoming clearer every day. The oceans are becoming more acidic, marine heat waves are expanding and vast areas are suffering catastrophic declines in the oxygen vital to life.

In the face of these unprecedented challenges it’s very easy to think the problems are just too big and there’s nothing we can do. But I absolutely believe there are reasons for optimism, that we can pull back from the brink and allow the natural world to regenerate. For example, commercial whaling reduced humpback whale numbers in the southwest Atlantic from 27,000 to just 450 animals. But since the ban on whaling in 1982, these numbers have bounced back to almost 25,000 – a 93% recovery.

The Challenger expedition set out on a converted naval sailing ship. In the 21st century scientists are highly networked, with the power to monitor the oceans from shore using robotic platforms. We can even sequence the diversity of life far offshore using fragments of DNA in seawater.

But these opportunities are not open to all. We need to supercharge international science partnerships so researchers from all corners of the world can build projects together and share access to the costly ships and equipment needed to study the oceans.

This graphic from IOC-UNESCO’s Ocean Science Report in 2017 really brings home how vital it is we share human and technical marine science capacities. At the top the map shows the countries of world distorted in proportion to the number of ocean science research papers produced by each country. On the bottom we see the corresponding number of citations.

This map needs to change.

In the same report, IOC-UNESCO explained that only between 0.04% and 4% of total research and development funding is spent on ocean science. There are also huge disparities in national capacities to research the ocean, and while more female scientists work in ocean research than in other disciplines, still only 38% of ocean researchers are female.

These issues all need to be acknowledged and tackled in a systematic manner. 

Last year we launched the iAtlantic project – an ambitious programme of work to complete an integrated assessment of deep and open ocean Atlantic marine ecosystems in space and time. I think the organisers of the Virtual Ocean Dialogue asked me to speak about iAtlantic because we’re not just setting out to achieve scientific objectives, we’ve woven knowledge sharing, open data practices and capacity building into every aspect of the project’s plan.

iAtlantic is funded by the European Union’s Horizon2020 programme. It pulls together a team working across Europe, South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, Canada and the USA focussed on achieving 6 overarching objectives.

The six key objectives of iAtlantic

I’m especially proud of our amazing team of iAtlantic Fellows. Please read their online biographies and reach out to support these young people in their pioneering work.

The political will behind iAtlantic was captured in the 2017 Belem Statement on Atlantic Research and Innovation Cooperation. Brokered by the European Union and the governments of South Africa and Brazil we need more visionary frameworks like this to create that supercharging of international partnerships in ocean research.

In June 2020 over 1,300 participants from more than 90 different countries participated in the World Economic Forum’s Virtual Ocean Dialogues. The livestreamed sessions received over 780,000 views with 4.3 million views on Instagram and the event’s hashtag #OceanDialogues had a potential reach of 1.3 million people.

In 2020 all you needed to join international ocean sustainability discussions was a half-decent internet connection. The online ocean super-year has democratised everyone’s ability to become part of the discussion. If we can focus our energies on sharing and enhancing ocean capacities and working hard to keep our discussions open to all then we really have a fighting chance of creating “the science we need for the ocean we want“.

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