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The Blue Frontier – Universities’ Role In Marine Science, Tech And Management

Universities’ role in marine science, tech and management

Richard Florizone and John Cullen – June 12, 2015

The oceans are a precious resource, essential not only to humanity, but also to the function of our planet. What role can a university play in developing marine science, technology and management in support of prosperous and sustainable human-ocean relations? That was the question at the core of a presentation by Dalhousie President Richard Florizone and co-authored by Professor Emeritus John Cullen at the Beijing Forum 2014 in November. Here, we provide a snapshot of their thoughts on how Dal can help develop the nascent blue economy—responsibly and sustainably—and why both pure and applied research are essential to that effort.

You can read the full paper here [PDF]

As technology advances and societies develop, economic use of the ocean expands and diversifies. Opportunities come from technological innovation that, if implemented in a framework of sustainability, can develop the nascent blue economy. Tides, waves and wind can provide green energy; aquaculture — possibly including new applications onshore and in open waters offshore — can potentially provide sustainably produced, high-quality food to supplement capture fisheries; new technologies can be used to exploit previously inaccessible resources such as hydrocarbons and minerals in the deep sea and other extreme environments; and advances in shipping technology can greatly increase the efficiency and safety of marine transport while reducing emissions and pollution, including unwanted transport of invasive species in ballast water.

New opportunities for uses of the ocean come with risks, especially if long-term sustainability is not factored in to the development and implementation of new technologies. It is imperative, but difficult, to minimize threats that are at the forefront today, ranging from degradation of ecosystems through overfishing to pollution and invasive species to the hazards of wind, waves, currents and ice. Global change complicates risk management and environmental stewardship because economic use of marine resources is expanding rapidly while the ocean and its ecosystems are changing, subject to natural variability that is increasingly influenced by human activities at the local, regional and global scales.

The challenges of marine management in a rapidly changing world are daunting, but the notion of a blue economy embraces them. Guided by evidence-based research, technology and marine management must advance together. International cooperation is centrally important, recognizing that both prosperous development and environmental sustainability are possible in a new era of human-ocean relations.

1. The university as hub for ocean studies
It is critical that communities work together now — across sectors, regions and nations — to develop and implement strategies for sustainable relationships between humans and the ocean. The natural sciences and technology provide the foundations for responsible development and stewardship of the ocean and its resources; the social sciences, policy and law link evidence and inventions to responsible practice. Universities have a central role in this process. As long-established centres for teaching, learning, research and discovery, they are pivotal in society’s efforts to build a sustainable and prosperous future for humankind in relation to the ocean.

Dalhousie has emerged as a national and international centre of expertise in ocean studies, committed to active engagement in the development of marine science and technology in order to achieve sustainable development of the ocean. Our experience provides an example of how the modern university can work with the public, industry and governments to support sustainable use of the ocean in an increasingly complex world.

More than 50 years ago, Dalhousie identified ocean studies as an area of special expertise and established the first Department of Oceanography in the country. Its founder, Gordon A. Riley, is widely recognized as one of the most influential oceanographers of the 20th century, particularly noted for his development of marine ecosystem models that are centrally important to marine prediction and climate change research today. Subsequently, innovative programs of study in marine law and marine affairs were established. Dalhousie developed world-leading programs of research in marine biodiversity, conservation, and observation and prediction systems, among others, while the number of faculty in ocean-related teaching and research increased to more than a hundred, spanning the disciplines of agriculture, computer science, engineering, law, management, natural sciences and social sciences. Dalhousie’s faculty are among the world’s top experts in ocean-related topics that span disciplines, socio-economic sectors and geography, and the university’s graduates are making a long-term impact on marine science, policy and economic development worldwide.

2. The importance of partnerships
This development of Dalhousie’s capabilities in marine studies has been systematically fostered through strong partnerships with governments and non-governmental organizations, industry and academic institutions nationally and internationally. Partnerships provide complementary perspectives, expertise and relevance (not to mention resources) to the university’s mission of teaching, learning, research and discovery. Recent examples include:

The Marine Environmental Observation, Prediction and Response Network (MEOPAR), a cross-Canada team of university and government researchers working to help reduce Canada’s vulnerability and exposure to hazards and to improve responses to marine emergencies.
The Ocean Tracking Network, sometimes called “the ocean’s
Internet,” a global partnership to collect, store, share, analyze and use aquatic tracking and environmental data to support sustainable management of valued aquatic species.
The Transatlantic Ocean System Science and Technology (TOSST) research school, linking two major centres of ocean research in Canada and northern Germany to train graduate students and to promote the ability to manage deep-sea and open-ocean environments.
The NSERC-Cooke Industrial Research Chair in Sustainable Aquaculture, a partnership between a leading aquaculture researcher and a major integrated aquaculture corporation.
Fish-WIKS (Fisheries—Western and Indigenous Knowledge Systems), a research partnership including indigenous and non-indigenous scholars from universities and indigenous governance and research institutions.
(Click graphic to enlarge – PDF, 4.4 MB)

3. Scientific foundations for sustainable development
Universities can and should pursue targeted areas of applied research, but to truly thrive they must remain as centres for pure, curiosity-driven research, growing the reservoir of knowledge from which humankind can draw in the decades and centuries ahead.

Our base of knowledge must be continually expanded by observation, discovery and explanation — that is, exploration (or basic) research. Exploration research is driven by curiosity in its most positive sense. Targeted research can follow a similar path, yielding valuable results of immediate importance. But by definition, exploration of the unknown creates new knowledge, the fuel of innovation.

There are many possible examples to illustrate how fundamental research has expanded knowledge of the ocean and earth systems, with important implications for sustainable development. One is the story of fisheries scientist and marine conservation biologist Ransom A. (Ram) Myers and his research on the decline of fisheries. A mathematically gifted and passionate scientist, Dr. Myers began his career working for Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Dr. Myers and his co-authors felt morally obliged to communicate to the media their scientifically-grounded conclusions about the link between excessive fishing and the collapse of the once-massive northern cod fishery. Reprimanded by his bureaucratic superiors, Dr. Myers moved to Dalhousie in 1997 as its first Killam Chair in Ocean Studies, attaining the right of freedom of expression. During the following decade, he, his students and his colleagues had an enormous impact on the study of fisheries and biodiversity, helping to found the field of fisheries conservation biology. His success, tragically cut short (he died of inoperable brain cancer in the prime of his career), showed how science explained effectively to society can help humanity to live in harmony with the ocean during the new era of the blue economy. Universities have an important role in preserving the freedom to explore and explain.

4. The source of new ideas to address emerging opportunities
Another example: a technical and scientific challenge of immediate commercial and environmental importance, ballast water treatment, illustrates the dependence of problem solving and innovation on the reservoir of knowledge that accumulates through exploration research. Widespread recognition of the threat of invasive species transported by ships has led to global response and the adoption of an international convention that will require all ships to implement a ballast water management plan consistent with International Maritime Organization (IMO) guidelines. In turn, vessels sailing in United States waters will be required to meet ballast water discharge standards created by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), which have similar objectives but a different criterion for validating the effectiveness of treatment: The IMO set standards for maximum number of “viable” cells discharged by ships whereas the USCG regulates the discharge of “living” organisms. This seemingly subtle distinction has profound implications: Treatment with ultraviolet radiation (UV), a proven technology for wastewater sterilization, is demonstrably effective for disinfecting ballast water of microscopic plankton. However, UV renders these organisms harmless by damaging DNA so they are incapable of reproduction—they are not viable and can’t invade ecosystems, but they retain some signs of life and can appear to be “living” in USCG assays.

The “living” versus “viable” issue presented a challenge and an opportunity to ballast water treatment industries using UV, including Canada’s leader in UV treatment, Trojan Technologies. Working with Trojan in a research partnership supported by government, Dalhousie researchers Hugh MacIntyre and John Cullen are addressing the esoteric but critically important distinction between living and viable phytoplankton in a comprehensive program of highly targeted research, the results of which are providing scientific evidence that can pave the way to improved regulations for the protection of coastal ecosystems and the commercial success of UV-ballast water treatment technology. Importantly, the scientific and technical foundations of this program of applied research came from diverse studies that had little or nothing to do with the intentional killing of plant life or any other commercial venture. Exploration research over decades provided the knowledge to respond to an immediate need; solutions for tomorrow’s problems will surely depend on continued investigation of the unknown.

5. The unique role of universities
As institutions committed to excellence in teaching, learning, research and innovation, universities have a unique role in partnerships for a sustainable future. They must continue to serve as the reservoirs of knowledge that may or may not have immediate application and also as the founts of new discoveries that will be required to sustain innovation and environmental solutions in the future. A thriving, globally competitive university absolutely needs to take a balanced approach, pursuing both targeted research and pure curiosity-based research. Without the former we risk our engagement and direct connection with broader society; without the latter we would lose our ability to illuminate, investigate and address the unknown. Society critically needs both.

This abbreviated version of the Beijing Forum paper first appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Dalhousie magazine.