Ocean science that's fit for purpose: an investment pitch

by Vladimir Ryabinin | UNESCO
Wednesday, 7 March 2018 12:00 GMT

Hong Klathalay walks towards his fishing boat in Khao Lak, Phang Nga province, Thailand in this December 2014 archive photo. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

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Research enables governments and others to protect the ocean and its resources, but is under-funded

We cannot manage what we cannot measure – this famous business adage could not be truer for ocean observations and science. In 2017, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO published the first Global Ocean Science Report, an assessment of national investments and capacities in oceanography.

We know now that, on average, 70 percent of the world’s total budget for ocean science comes from public funding at the national level. We know that this is only about 4.5 percent of global governmental funding for natural sciences, with drastic fluctuations. Moreover, inequality in countries’ abilities to do science, publish results and benefit from related R&D is a real - and global - issue. 

Why is this information important? Because it is ocean science that ultimately enables governments and other actors to protect the ocean and its resources.

We already rely intensely on the ocean for food, transportation, tourism, energy production and a host of other economic activities. At the same time, the ocean’s deteriorating health threatens its ability to continue providing for human livelihoods, to sustain ecosystems, moderate and mitigate climate change, and even produce oxygen. When we add to the equation trends such as increased globalisation and demographic expansion, the outlook is fairly bleak.

So quite bluntly: Can we still save our ocean? And how?

Heads of state, international organisations and major civil society actors gathering at the Economist World Ocean Summit this week to tackle these questions may not realise fully the crucial role of science in developing fool-proof, sustainable solutions. But it’s clear that if we want to save the ocean, we need to recognise – politically and practically – that investing in ocean science is worth our while.

We have been investing in ocean science – just not enough. Current collective national investments via the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) are roughly at $1 billion a year. This seems reasonable up to the point when we compare the numbers to the OECD’s very conservative estimate that by 2030 the ocean economy will be worth $3 trillion.

We are nowhere near having internationally agreed instruments to measure the true economic and financial value of the ocean and its ecosystems, but most experts will agree that we are under-investing by several orders of magnitude.

DELVING DEEPER

Current levels of investment have given us much knowledge about the upper layers of the ocean “water column” – the upper 2,000m or so of the ocean – but we know too little about what lies below, or the complex ocean dynamics in the polar regions.

We also need to take an interdisciplinary leap, integrating ocean physics into other key but so far under-studied fields of ocean science such as chemistry, biology and ecology.

Ultimately, decision-makers need to know that ocean science can deliver actionable information. Our current knowledge about climate change and our ability to model its projected impacts rely heavily on data acquired through ocean observation programmes.

The international Argo Programme deploys a fleet of nearly 4,000 floats that are in constant motion across the world’s ocean basins, reaching depth of 2,000 metres. This international, open-access collaboration is supported by more than 30 countries. The work to maintain the Argo array illustrates well the constant challenge faced by intergovernmental ocean science programmes. It currently costs between $25 million-$30 million a year to operate but, for many nations, the programme is supported by national research programmes that are under the constant threat of budget cuts.

Philanthropy has increasingly stepped up as an important source for advancing ocean science to meet national challenges. For example, Paul G. Allen Philanthropies recently provided a $4-million grant to help researchers from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) deploy the first large-scale array of the new Deep Argo floats.

NORWAY LEADS

Effective management of our ocean will not come without a major increase in funding of ocean science, observations and their international coordination. Some countries have fully recognised the potential of ocean science and its workforce.

For example, systematic investments in ocean science in Norway helped the country to have far more ocean science researchers per capita than any other nation. Norway is leading on generating value from sustainable use of the ocean and its resources. The Norway examples is inspiring, but more countries need to step up.

The United Nations General Assembly declared in December 2017 that the years 2021-2030 will be the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.

The decade is designed to make a qualitative change in oceanography, transforming it from a curiosity-driven science into a global collective framework. New research and applications will directly support policy-making toward delivering what the decade’s slogan fittingly calls “the Ocean We Need for the Future We Want”.

Vladimir Ryabinin is Executive Secretary of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO.