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How to Build Partnerships in Ocean Science and Technology

White House summit to discuss collaboration in ocean research

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© Bruce Heinemann

We know more about the surface of the moon than the ocean floor. As a nation, we have invested a lot less in better understanding our ocean than in other areas of scientific research. The current budget for NOAA’s Ocean Exploration program, the very program charged with exploring and better understanding our ocean, is $42 million a year. For perspective, the budget of the Lunar Discovery and Exploration program is currently $218 million a year. This is not to say that space exploration is not vital for our nation, it is. But we could be investing more in our ocean, and supporting investments in ocean science and management at NOAA is a top priority here at Ocean Conservancy. Investment in ocean science, exploration and observation directly inform how we live and thrive in harmony with our ocean, now and in the future. That and … well, ocean discovery is just really cool.

This week the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Council on Environmental Quality are hosting a Summit on Partnerships in Ocean Science and Technology. Leaders from ocean relevant federal agencies, oceanographic academic institutions, philanthropy, non-governmental organizations and industry will discuss opportunities for building and sustaining partnerships in ocean research. We know that we will need to embark on a collective effort to fill the major gaps in our understanding of our ocean and how climate change will continue to alter ecosystems. We are already seeing new technologies emerge that make it easier than ever to collect and analyze data, allowing us to assess the health of our ocean and make more informed decisions. How do we collectively put both the needs and technology together?

At Ocean Conservancy, we hope this summit is a way to come together as an ocean community to outline knowledge gaps, barriers and challenges to advancing ocean science so we have the power to effectively address climate change and other pressing ocean challenges. In order for that to happen, a few overarching principles must be followed:

These discussions must be inclusive; data must be transparent and easily accessible; new research and technology must support conservation and sustainability; and we need effective governance to get us there.

As new ideas, observational tools or technologies are developed, we must consider the underlying reality about whom our research currently benefits and who should benefit to achieve economic and social equity. How can we use existing data in new ways for the benefit not just of some, but also of whole communities? Inclusivity requires full engagement in ocean exploration and new technologies by those who use and need ocean data. It also means traditional knowledge must be thoughtfully included to provide insights and observations and that underserved communities are engaged to fully acknowledge the social-ecological system, improving our collective understanding of our ocean for the benefit of all.

A related issue is how to ensure data owned by and available to the public (i.e., nonproprietary data) is shared more effectively. Often, university scientists are reluctant to share data out of fear they will not be credited, or private enterprises hold on to their data out of fear of not recovering their investment. We need to change the cultural mindset from one of data hoarding to data sharing. One immediate fix is for federal agencies that fund data collection to require some portion of a grant or award go toward ensuring that data collected are tagged and archived to public data systems. Although some federal agencies already meet this requirement, some do not, and it should become standard policy. As we think about partnerships with academia, business and non-governmental organizations, the data transparency and ownership piece is critical.

As data gathering and ocean exploration efforts continue to grow, they must align with societal goals for conservation and sustainability. While it is valuable to understand the seafloor, we must not forget that the water column is also habitat and that we need to direct efforts to understand it as well. But because we have explored so little of the deep ocean, we do not know how much disturbance deep ocean ecosystems can withstand. As we extend the frontiers of knowledge, we must make sure we explore places like the deep ocean with a focus on conservation, knowledge sharing and equitable uses, and not allow a lawless mentality marked by information secrecy and access grabbing.

While new exploration efforts are valuable, we can learn a lot before diving into the depths just by improving our access to historical ocean data that is currently locked away in thousands of individual electronic files. Think of the new insights scientists, ocean managers and coastal communities can gain about ocean health and ecosystem function when we combine historical data with new biological, chemical and physical data. Data collection efforts need to ensure new data are comparable to historic data and that it is all available in one location.

To help integrate data in this way, we recommend the White House Ocean Policy Committee direct its ocean science and technology subcommittee to play a governance and coordination role across government and non-governmental ocean data. We need an entity tasked with identifying challenges and obstacles to advancing science and technology. It must also define barriers related to existing government policies and procedures while prioritizing engagement from many different ocean user groups in order to advance our ability to understand and effectively manage our ocean. The subcommittee could work to address all of the issues discussed here, including the balance between data privacy and transparency and how we can efficiently incorporate data from new sources and new technologies into the decision-making process.

The summit is just one day, but it represents decades of work at agencies, states, non-governmental organizations and in communities around the country to harness the power of data and technology to ensure a healthy ocean and sustainable ocean economy. We do not have all the answers but collectively we can make progress. Our hope is that this discussion is only the beginning of future collaborations within the ocean community.

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