To secure rich and clean oceans, people are our greatest resource

Marine research can play a bigger role in finding solutions.

This article was originally published on Medium.

Text by Leonie Goodwin, cCHANGE, and Gro I. van der Meeren, Institute of Marine Research, Information design and Narrative facilitation by InfoDesignLab.

In September 2016, around thirty eminent Norwegian researchers and leaders in marine resource management met in Bergen, Norway, to discuss how to improve collaborations to make rapid progress on ocean and marine resource management goals in the coming decade.

The participants came from leading marine research institutions and businesses around Norway and Europe, from various Norwegian ministries and government bodies, the Food and Agricultural Organisation, and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, as well as Future Earth’s Ocean Knowledge-Action Network.

Many aspects of marine resource management were discussed, but the group kept coming back to the importance of building high-quality collaborations — the potential opportunities and current barriers.

What follows, are some of the highlights from those discussions.

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It’s commonly agreed that the ocean has fantastic potential to benefit society. Norway manages some of the world’s largest marine living resources and is the world’s second largest exporter of fish and fish products. It has big ambitions for the future with the government’s Havsstrategi: Ny vekst, stolt historie and Blue Growth for a Green Future strategy, as well as political commitments at the global level, including participation in UN Sustainable Development Goal 14 relating to the ocean, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission at UNESCO. At the same time, our oceans face very significant threats: climate change impacts, ecosystem change, pollution, and ocean acidification, just to name a few. Norway’s Northern and Arctic ecosystems are particularly vulnerable and are experiencing the impacts of rapid climate change faster than anywhere on the planet.

So how can we balance our ambitions and the threats, and move successfully from vision to reality at the scale and speed needed?

Marine research can play a bigger role in finding solutions

Better integrating marine-related research from all domains — the natural sciences, as well as the social sciences including economics, and the humanities — into marine sector collaborations offers huge untapped potential.

Achieving rich, clean oceans is much more than a series of problems that can be addressed through technical solutions and top-down directives. It is an adaptive challenge. Adaptive challenges can be messy, unclear and difficult to deal with. They are closely linked to beliefs, habits, and values, as well as power and politics, and the solutions to these types of challenges lie in harnessing collective and collaborative power.

Many social and marine researchers are eager to collaborate more in finding solutions — either with other researchers or with people from the public and private sector, as well as community groups. There are many inspiring examples where it’s happening already. But we need many more.

More well-functioning, cross-sectoral collaborations would benefit many aspects of marine resource management in Norway, for example:

  • by improving our knowledge of the value and role of coastal ecosystems;
  • by improving integrated ecosystem assessments;
  • by building stronger long-term scenario and visualisation capabilities so that we can better describe and model the development and future state of marine life and values;
  • and by helping us to deal more effectively with economic, social, and environmental trade-offs and uncertainties.

Such collaborations would ensure our efforts are targeted and effective.

Collaborators would develop a common vision and define the problems and relevant questions together.

They would integrate the available knowledge and ensure the right people come together to develop insights and solutions that are tailored to the problems and questions we really want to solve.

They would implement actions together and build in ways to systematically learn from the experience and take that into the design of the next project.

The untapped potential of social science and humanities research

Social science including economics, and humanities research could be utilised by the sector to a far greater extent. Such research offers insights into communities and individuals — into their decision-making processes, values, behaviour and motivations. Among other things, these insights can be used to give guidance on ways to deal with uncertainty in models and projections, on how to communicate challenging findings, on improving collaborations and their essential processes, and on how institutions can innovate and evolve to adapt to the rapidly changing environments and societal needs they are likely to face in the coming decades.

When we talk about managing marine ecosystems, we are really talking about managing the way humans interact with marine ecosystems. When we don’t include the human dimension, or only include part of this, we lose the potential to capitalize on sustainable solutions. Bringing in more qualitative research would be an effective way to bring in the human dimension.

In addition, the human dimension can also be bought in through quantitative research delivered by the social sciences, particularly economic methods. When natural science is combined with quantitative economic science and social science, broader, richer, and more holistic research and models emerge.

Engaging heads, hearts, and hands in rapid transformations

Research into sustainability transformations reveals a lot about how rapid, large-scale changes occur and why engaging everyone’s heads, hearts and hands is so important. The Three Spheres of Transformation is a framework developed by University of Oslo Professor and member of Future Earth’s first Science Committee, Karen O’Brien. It provides a way to think about the enablers and barriers to change.


Graphic: The Three Spheres of Transformation K O’Brien and L Sygna, 2013; M Sharma, 2009.

Transformations to sustainability can occur in three interacting domains — the practical, political and personal spheres.

The practical sphere often receives the most attention. This is where progress towards goals can be observed and measured. Transformations in this sphere often involve promoting innovation, improving management, enhancing knowledge and expertise, and changing people’s behaviour. These are largely “technical responses” — challenging, but not impossible. Practical transformations can directly contribute to outcomes for sustainability; however, such transformations can often be held back by larger systems and structures that define the conditions for change.

The political sphere includes the social systems and structures that create the conditions for transformations in the practical sphere. In this sphere, both problems and solutions are identified, defined, and delimited, and conflicts of interest must be resolved. Transformations in this sphere are strongly influenced by how the system is perceived by the different actors.

The personal sphere includes the individual and shared beliefs, values, worldviews and paradigms that influence attitudes and actions. These shape individual and collective “views” of the system. Transformations in this sphere can be powerful because they often lead to new perspectives and narratives which can influence the framing of issues, the questions that are asked or not asked, and the solutions prioritized in the political and practical spheres. Changes in this sphere often result in people “seeing” systems and structures in new ways. But … transformations in this sphere cannot be forced.

Potential intervention points for transformation can be found within each of the spheres, but it is the interactions across the spheres where the greatest potential for generating non-linear transformation lies.

This means we need transformations that work from both the “outside-in” and the “inside-out”. From organisations and systems, through to individuals’ hearts and minds … and back again.

What’s holding us back?

Although many researchers are keen to collaborate more effectively with each other and across the sector, the meeting participants identified a number of barriers currently holding us back.

Differences in culture and language both within academia and across the sectors could be one of the most significant barriers to successful cross-sectoral collaborations. The language and working styles of the different sectors vary greatly. Time and effort are required to successfully bridge these differences, to find a common language and develop trust.

We could recognise these inherent qualities more openly and systematically address them. Social scientists could help in this respect by observing us working and by helping us to rigorously reflect upon our collaborations and work consciously towards improving them.

Richer collaborations could benefit the way we currently value marine resources. Players from across the sector could work together to establish baseline values for all ecosystem services, particularly for the regulating, cultural and provisioning services where we currently lack information — and then determine how these are linked to community welfare.


Graphic: Ecosystem services: Examples of provisioning, regulating, cultural and supporting services

Using and refining a common approach together, such as the ecosystem services framework, may help sector players collaborate more effectively and build a common language. It would also enable a common understanding of the different types of values — economic and non-monetary — to be included in future projections and scenarios.

At the political level, a lack of connection and alignment in marine resource management policies across government departments and between the local and national levels is hampering effective collaboration.

Meeting participants discussed how the interface between policy and science will need to be more flexible in the coming decades and allow for faster change and improvement. When science and policy come together over decisions where the stakes are high, the advice timescales are urgent, and the science involved is highly uncertain, this will require a different, more flexible, iterative and reflexive approach to collaboration than we have today.

Social scientists with insight in such areas could help here and support national and local government bodies and research institutions to adapt, prepare, innovate, and connect with each other more effectively.

There is a lot of working in parallel across the marine resource management sector today. To build successful, long-term collaborations which provide the solutions-oriented insights we need, there must be more continuity — more established platforms for focused cross-sectoral collaboration.

In addition, limited financial resources to engage researchers from different disciplines in projects in meaningful ways can also be a barrier to building good long-term collaborations and capability in the next generation. Establishing a Centre(s) of Excellence to do integrated work on complex marine resource management issues could provide a solid platform to coordinate cross-sectoral collaboration and help build skills, knowledge, and relationships for the long-term. It would also offer a place where early-career researchers could build their skill sets and contribute to ensuring Norway continues to benefit fully from its rich marine resources.

At the personal level, working more collaboratively with different types of researchers requires time, effort and bravery. Sometimes people are resistant to collaborating in diverse groups with people they don’t know, but we usually get a boost to our problem-solving ability when we do. Systematically building individuals’ capacity to communicate and connect more across the sectors through opportunities, support and training is another important, yet often overlooked, step to building successful and effective, long-term collaborations.

Charting a new course for the future

Just over two years ago, the global research initiative Future Earth brought together more than 20 research projects from three distinct global change research programs. The funders and architects of Future Earth recognised the complexity of addressing our sustainability challenges and that sustainability science needed to work in a more solutions-oriented, integrated, and connected way with society.

They also recognised the human dimension needed to be more integrated and so they ensured insights from the humanities and social sciences, including economics, finance, consumption, decision-making theory, and transformations theory, were given much more presence, as well as different types of knowledge, such as local, indigenous, and private sector knowledge.

Nine Knowledge-Action Networks, including one addressing oceans and another addressing transformations, were formed to encourage engagement across society around these issues.

Over the last few years, thousands of researchers in the global Future Earth community have been reflecting on the way we have been doing sustainability research and working to connect, engage and change — striving to deliver knowledge that results in solutions and change. This is a huge task, that will require changes in quality at all levels — at the systemic and organisational — as well as at the individual level. But as a first step, if we intentionally engage more in open dialogue and experimentation in our cross-sectoral collaborations and build in ways to reflect, learn and grow from our successes and failures, we will go a long way to transforming both the way we work, and the results.

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Ocean sustainability under global change: Top priorities for Norwegian research and prospects for collaboration, 1–2 September 2016, Bergen. Download the meeting report

This meeting was hosted by:

IMBeR (Integrated Marine Biosphere Research): An international project under the Future Earth umbrella, promotes international integrated marine research through a range of research topics, projects and initiatives. IMBeR’s science plan aims to truly integrate the social and natural sciences. IMBeR is hosted by the Institute of Marine Research in Bergen, Norway.

Future Earth Norway: The Norwegian secretariat of Future Earth.

Institute of Marine Research, Norway

Learn more about:

Future Earth, Future Earth’s Ocean Knowledge-Action Network, and Transformations Knowledge-Action Network

Thanks to reviewers:

Dorothy Jane Dankel, Researcher, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Bergen; Kristin Magnussen, Partner, Menon Centre for Environmental and Resource Economics

This article was made possible with economic support from the Norwegian Research Council.

Graphic: A blueprint for building more successful and responsive collaborations to secure clean and rich oceans. Integrating research from all domains offers huge untapped potential to secure rich and clean oceans, but there are a number of barriers currently holding us back. Design: InfoDesignLab