Dear Ocean Science Community,

I want to talk about ocean solutions. What are they? And why does it matter how we think about them?

If you’ve taken a look around my website, you’ll see that this is a topic I’m passionate about. It drives my research. Seeking solutions to the problems in our oceans leaves me feeling empowered as a scientist and global citizen. Sharing solutions with others empowers a global community.

Solutions matter.

So why am I talking about solutions now?

I returned recently from the OceanVisions 2019 conference held at Georgia Tech. This conference was a first-time effort to unite ocean scientists, engineers, and conservationists to highlight success stories in ocean science resilience, adaptation, and mitigation. After one of the sessions in which I was a participant, the session chairs set up a structured discussion to discuss ocean solutions. To structure the discussion, they used this definition of ocean solutions:

“… we propose starting from a working definition to help frame discussion and develop a common vocabulary. Solutions are collective efforts in science, technology, policy, communication, or behavior change that prevent, lessen, or eliminate declines in marine species or ecosystem health. Solutions may include, but not be limited to, research challenges, unanswered questions, or points of scientific debate that, if resolved, could advance action to address problems. Solutions may go beyond focusing on research, and could focus on how to promote interdisciplinary science, communicate science, and engage with policymakers or other stakeholders.”

So let’s talk about this definition because I think it provides lots of insights into some areas where ocean science is rapidly changing to meet societal needs and others where I believe it lags behind.

The first full sentence:

“Solutions are collective efforts in science, technology, policy, communication, or behavior change that prevent, lessen, or eliminate declines in marine species or ecosystem health.”

And the third sentence:

“Solutions may go beyond focusing on research, and could focus on how to promote interdisciplinary science, communicate science, and engage with policymakers or other stakeholders.”

These sentence highlights that ocean solutions do not sit exclusively in the domain of natural sciences and engineering, but instead also encompass social science (behavior), public engagement (communication), and engagement with lawmakers and regulators (policy). I agree with these ideas, as would almost all ocean professionals I know. Natural sciences and engineering can often provide the raw material to spark ideas for mitigation or adaptation to a changing ocean, but their implementation lies in how communities receive and process the information, and whether they decide to act on the information. At the conference, I saw great talks by scientists describing how their work with ocean observational networks (networks of buoys and sensors that provide regional ocean information) is helping inform fishers of up-to-date ocean conditions so that they can make smarter decisions about where to fish, and thereby sustain their local economies. These same networks of sensors are also providing real-time information to help regulators develop current, data-informed ecosystem targets for sustainable management. Applying real-time data streams of ocean conditions to help coastal communities make smarter decisions is a huge step towards adapting to a changing ocean.

But since this was a conference specifically advertised as an opportunity to bring scientists and engineers together, I want to focus on the second sentence of the paragraph:

“Solutions may include, but not be limited to, research challenges, unanswered questions, or points of scientific debate that, if resolved, could advance action to address problems.”

I believe this sentence highlights the difficulty in advancing ocean solutions within scientific research communities. This definition is so broad that all of ocean science could conceivably fall under its umbrella. I do not know any ocean scientists who would not describe their research as addressing unanswered questions or points of scientific debate that could advance actions to avoid declines in marine species or ecosystem health. Simply put, why would anyone work on scientific questions that they do not feel could meet this basic criteria?

If we fail to specify how solutions-focused research is distinct from the larger body of fundamental, or basic, ocean science research, how will we prioritize seeking solutions? How will we ensure that nascent efforts to develop solutions-focused research programs are not swallowed by the inertia of large-scale basic ocean science research efforts, along with the associated fears about sunk costs of infrastructure (large ships, observing networks, etc.)? If we want to catalyze solutions-focused research, we need definitions that more explicitly define what is and what is not solutions-focused research. More specific definitions will allow us to incentivize solutions-focused research through specific grant programs, research awards, and other key aspects of research culture.

Without these definitions and incentives in place, building a community of solutions-focused researchers becomes much more difficult. Smart, rational people interested in career advancement (promotion to tenure, academic awards, etc.) will follow the well-tread path of fundamental scientists before them instead of blazing their own path in developing ocean solutions. To accelerate solutions, we need to reward solutions.

To be clear, I recognize the incredible value that fundamental ocean science provides for our understanding of the ocean’s role in Earth’s climate, the origins of life, and global biodiversity. The need to continue support for basic ocean science support has never been stronger. But we also need to recognize that if we want to develop ocean solutions at scale, we must acknowledge key differences between the fields. Solutions-focused work often requires more attention to context and detail as compared to basic science, which emphasizes systems-level conceptual understanding. It also adapts concepts from existing fields of knowledge (e.g., engineering, economics, and psychology) for application towards solving ocean problems, a process often not recognized as sufficiently innovative in many basic science domains.

In the spirit of this essay, it is insufficient to merely identify the problem with defining solutions. We must also work to fix it. I propose the following definition of solutions-focused research:

“Solutions-focused research is research that identifies, evaluates, and optimizes plans to alleviate declines in marine species or ocean ecosystem health.”

What do you think?

Agree or disagree, I hope this post stimulates a community conversation. It is an important discussion we must have.

Dave