Co-designing science for knowledge-based solutions in the context of the Ocean Decade

Transdisciplinary research is critical for revolutionizing ocean science to meet the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. ISC Intern Caroline Sharples reports on the ISC-UNESCO-IOC organized webinar “Co-Designing the science we need for the Ocean Decade- Part 1”

Increasing impacts of anthropogenic activities on earth systems have created a demand for knowledge production that moves beyond diagnostic results. In order to meet the needs of the ocean environment and society, it is critical to approach research initiatives with the goal of providing solutions and inspiring transformative actions with lasting benefits. Fundamental research has identified a plethora of problems that the ocean is currently facing, including ocean acidification, deoxygenation, pollution and sea level rise. The solutions to these problems remain to be found, with implications for further research in both the natural and social sciences.

The Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development aims to actively integrate natural and social science disciplines in order to generate knowledge-based solutions for the most pressing challenges. In order to achieve this, it is urgent that research activities are co-designed and co-delivered with the goal of being applicable and responsive to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals outlined in the agenda work to address complex issues using specific targets that require knowledge from the natural and social sciences, including economics, as well as efforts to improve governance. Achieving these goals requires the creation of solutions based on reliable evidence, strengthened through collaboration.

The first webinar in the Ocean Decade virtual series, “Co-designing the science we need for the Ocean Decade –Part 1”  explored opportunities and challenges of transdisciplinary research, as well as best practices to deliver co-designed, solution-oriented research. Transdisciplinary research includes collaboration across different disciplines and brings together the realms of science and practice with the aim of generating knowledge-based solutions.

Effectively co-designing research in ocean science depends on inclusivity and communication with both academic and non-academic stakeholders, such as legislators and industry experts. Their involvement is necessary in the process of determining overarching principles, a common goal, and to continually identify the current and expected needs of those involved. Ben Boteler, Project Coordinator at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies and speaker during the webinar stressed the importance of making sure projects operate as an ongoing discussion, by continuously taking into consideration the changing priorities and contexts of those involved over the span of the project.

A current example of changing contexts can be seen in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, where research participants have been affected differently because of varying systems put in place on a national level to adapt to the spread and development of the virus. By frequently reassessing the changing needs of their partners and fellow research participants, researchers can ensure that the outputs will remain relevant and useful.

Josh Tewksbury, Interim Executive Director of Future Earth emphasized this further, explaining that in order to create a network that effectively brings together knowledge and action, it is not enough to bring people from different communities into the same room. Rather, trusting relationships must be built through repeated interactions, by people that are willing to step back and listen to each other in order to work towards the same goal. Prioritizing communication and building trusting relationships can also be very beneficial to the continuation of the project.

In addition to building relationships, Wenche Grønbrekk of Cermaq Group, a salmon and trout-farming business, suggested during the webinar that researchers should strongly consider engaging with industry as a way to combat the lack of funding for transdisciplinary research. Whether it be providing vaccines or solar panels, industry representatives can help initiate innovative action in collaboration with scientific projects, said Grønbrekk.

Taking into account perspectives from various disciplines, regions, sectors, and generations has great potential to advance the way researchers frame their solutions and fill knowledge gaps, particularly through embracing local and indigenous knowledge. Such interactions may help to better manage shared values and resources in areas beyond national jurisdiction.

Kristina Gjerde, External Advisor for the IUCN, advocated during the webinar, for a move towards regional environmental integrated assessments that can draw on knowledge from all sectors. She went on to further discuss the failure of community outreach initiatives due to weak ocean literacy amongst communities globally as well as the importance of identifying what knowledge we need to better manage shared values and resources.

Gjerde also highlighted the lack of knowledge about the deep sea as a key gap, where recent research indicates that “human interference in the deep sea could already be outpacing our basic understanding of how it functions. As a result, without increased research and an immediate review of deep ocean conservation measures, the creatures that live there face an uncertain future” (University of Oxford). Knowledge gaps such as these need to be filled through transdisciplinary research action plans that address scientific and societal problems effectively.

As the demand for transdisciplinary, action-oriented research grows, an opportunity to transform how the global north and south work together is arising. Through co-creating, co-designing, and co-producing science together from start to finish, transdisciplinary research groups have the opportunity to share their principles, priorities, and the expected outputs of all parties involved. This may open debates that challenge basic assumptions regarding how societal transformations unfold and how specific activities can induce change. In addition, increasing interactions between the global north and south may facilitate a transition to a more inclusive science system.

However, we must look beyond thinking about the world in terms of the global north and south. In order to advance ocean governance and science, it is fundamental to also take into account regions and communities. Decision-makers at the regional level can and should play a significant role in advancing conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. It is necessary to ensure that regional-level stakeholders are involved in transdisciplinary research as part of the Ocean Decade, and also contribute to ensuring that the aims of the project can continue to be filled once the research project comes to an end.

Examples of co-designed research can be found in the projects of the Leading Integrated Research Agenda 2030 in Africa (LIRA 2030) programme, which is a 5-year initiative that aims to expand the creation of high-calibre, integrated(inter-and transdisciplinary), solutions-oriented research on global sustainability by early-career researchers in Africa. This programme is led by the ISC with its Regional Office for Africa and with the Network of African Science Academies (NASAC). Research findings resulting from the programme are being used to address complex sustainability challenges in urban areas. The latest report from the programme centres around the means to co-produce information on sustainable metropolitan development in Africa through a coordinated effort among researchers, legislators, metropolitan specialists, and the private sector, and explores what challenges this process of knowledge co-production creates. It proposes choices for establishing empowering conditions for African researchers to embrace this kind of research.

To learn more about the Ocean Decade you can sign up for the ocean decade mailing list or apply to the Ocean Decade’s first Call to Action to help deliver “the science we need for the ocean we want.”


Photo by Marek Okon from Unsplash

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