Reflecting on WRIC-Oceans

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October 23, 2014

Last week, the 15th and 16th of October, saw the first ever World Research and Innovation Congress dedicated to the ocean. Delegates came from far and wide to discuss the state of the ocean, and their individual efforts to protect it.

Aptly held in the beautiful surroundings of the Lisbon Oceanarium, the key themes of the event were funding, international collaboration, research and policy, but several more nuanced themes emerged during the course of the event. A key theme from the outset was the importance of better communication between scientists and policy makers, and between science and society more generally. It was voiced that involving all relevant stakeholders, including industry, in the scientific process could only be beneficial for the ocean.

The vast lack of understanding about the ocean was cited by many, as a barrier to sustainable management, but also as a great opportunity for science. Climate change was of course another key focal point, and several speakers highlighted the many and diverse effects anthropogenic emissions are having on the ocean. Improving awareness and the need for collective responsibility were also noted, with the hope that the Congress may contribute to achieving these goals.

Day one 

The first day of the event, chaired by researcher and journalist Dr Luisa Schmidt, focused on the vital interactions between research and policy. Particular highlights were the speeches delivered by Wendy Watson Wright and Lowri Evans, which highlighted the need for robust and science-based policy, and the challenges of communication between these very different spheres.

“Science without policy is still science. Policy without science is gambling”

Professor David Grey, as quoted by Wendy Watson-Wright

Lowri Evans of the European Commission DG for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries highlighted the opportunities for ‘blue growth’, and the potential of the ocean to provide economic growth. Though a contentious point, it yielded interesting discussion, and brought to the fore the need to conduct research to evaluate the consequences of interventions – a precautionary approach. A panel session focused on the concept of a global ocean policy encouraged lively debate on the realities of worldwide governance of the ocean, with particular emphasis placed on the need for a sustainable development goal for the ocean.

Collaboration was also discussed, both geographically and between disciplines, as a crucial driver of marine innovation. A keynote speech from Dr Catarina Grilo explained the importance of international partnerships in governing a shared resource like the ocean.

Closing day one, the final session evaluated the facilitator of research – funding. Representatives from COST, Marie Curie Actions and EUREKA came together to discuss the challenges facing marine researchers in times of austerity, and the relevant details of the Horizon 2020 (H2020) programme. In the evening, a dinner in Lisbon offered delegates the opportunity to network in a more relaxed environment.

Take home points

  • The ocean is facing a critical situation due to global warming, leading to rising sea levels and ocean acidification. The sessions addressed the urgent need to strengthen the links between science and policy in order to sustain a healthy ocean for the future.
  • The extensive geographical dimension of the ocean commands that it can be only studied through international collaboration.
  • Public understanding of, and participation in, ocean research priorities are key areas for development.
  • H2020 – the new European funding framework – is coupling research with innovation. ‘Blue Growth’ is a dedicated area under H2020, with a specific €145m budget for 2014-2015. A successful H2020 proposal must have impact, scientific excellence, and efficient implementation.

Day two

Following the more holistic nature of day one, the second day of the Congress was geared towards basic research. Opened by Secretary of State for the Sea in Portugal, Professor Manuel Pinto de Abreu, the morning centred around the importance of protecting the marine environment, with discussions focused on exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and marine protected areas (MPAs). Pinto de Abreu spoke in detail of Portugal’s efforts to preserve the ocean, and his hopes that other nations will follow. Following this Professor Henrique Cabral, Director of Portugal’s new marine and environmental sciences centre – MARE – spoke of the human pressures on the waters, the consequences for marine ecosystems, and conservation efforts currently underway.

“Only 5 per cent of the world ocean has been explored”

Professor Henrique Cabral

A series of talks presented the many marine research efforts going on in Portugal and across the world. Scientists spoke of the huge number of services provided by the seas and coastal zones, and the damaging effects modern life is having on marine ecosystems, with Professor Alex Rogers focusing on biodiversity in particular.

“There needs to be a complete revision of our relationship to the ocean, which fully values the ecosystem goods it produces”

Professor Alex Rogers

Climate change was of course pervasive throughout the event, and Professor Hans-Otto Pörtner shed light on this with his presentation, which detailed the ocean-related findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) fifth assessment report. Alarmingly, the ocean has often been overlooked in considerations of climate change. Portner warned that the ocean is losing oxygen, getting warmer, and more acidic as a result of climate change, facts that concerns us all, as the ocean regulates the climate worldwide. Offering an industrial perspective, Simen Knudsen of DNV-GL discussed another major threat to the ocean – pollution. The ocean is our dumping ground; yet, Knudsen told the audience, nobody actually knows how much plastic is in the ocean.


The Lisbon Oceanarium

By the end of the day, although many had talked of the critical situation facing the ocean, the atmosphere was not defeatist, but hopeful. The wonder of the ocean, and the vital services it provides, can be preserved if we act soon, and together. As the event closed, delegates were offered the opportunity to visit the Lisbon Oceanarium, where they could view some of the nature that they had assembled to protect.

Take home points

  • Many cited lack of awareness of the critical role the ocean plays to life on Earth. In particular, the ocean has been neglected in many considerations of climate change, something that needs to change. The ocean not only regulates the climate on Earth, it is also affected by anthropogenic climate change.
  • The ocean is a precious resource, absorbing most of the heat and carbon dioxide humans are emitting, and in this way alleviating the impacts of climate change. Professor Hans-Otto Portner explained the effects of human abuse of the Ocean, from hypoxia to warming, and warned that this will ultimately impede our efforts to mitigate climate change.
  • We know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the bottom of the ocean. This lack of knowledge represents a huge challenge for the scientific community, but also a great opportunity. Researchers spoke with great excitement about the discoveries they are making, and encouraged delegates to get involved in marine research.
  • Marine scientist and policy makers need to engage with the wider community and stakeholders providing explanations and information to them. This is essential to preserve the ocean.

Planet Ocean?

The ocean makes up 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface, and we could not live without it. I think the biggest thing to come from the event was the unremitting passion people have for the ocean. Its importance for life on Earth cannot and should not be underestimated.

“How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly ocean”

Arthur C Clarke

Speakers and delegates talked intensely about the fundamental wonder of the ocean and the species it is home to, and the urgency of conservation measures. Most importantly, the event brought the ocean community together – members from the spheres of policy, research, funding and industry – to collaborate on a universal goal: sustainable use of the ocean.

To see photos from the event click hereAnd keep your eyes peeled for the forthcoming November edition of International Innovation issue, featuring a special section dedicated to WRIC-Oceans.