The Role of Science in Global Policy


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I have had the opportunity this week to be a part of something new.  This week, the United Nations has convened its first ever meeting on oceans and marine sustainability.  This institution of international cooperation recently adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs), which include such lofty but undeniably pressing global aspirations as an end to poverty; the global availability of education; and—of special interest to me—SDG 14, sustainable human interaction with the ocean.  These goals outlined broad objectives, but in many cases the roadmap we must use to reach those objectives has not been laid out.  This week, national leaders and representatives from member states around the world have come to the U.N. Headquarters in New York City to articulate their firm pledges of action for the ocean.  Already, we have heard bold promises to conserve large swaths of nations’ marine territories, to implement measures to reduce pollution and other harms, and to take other actions to ensure a healthy ocean for the future.  The leadership of small island nations, who have the most to lose from climate change and ocean degradation, and yet whose relatively small economies have contributed so little to these global issues, has been inspiring.  The most ambitious and meaningful pledges for ocean protection have come from these ocean peoples, and I hope that the world’s largest and most impactful nations will be moved to keep and to advance their own promises after witnessing the sacrifice and strength demonstrated by nations much smaller and less wealthy than they.  Still, these impressive proceedings and high-reaching commitments are in reality so tenuous and vulnerable to failure if international collaboration and good will do not prevail.  Hope, undaunted aspiration, and a rejection of cynicism and short-sightedness are required for SDG 14 to be achieved.


I feel a little bit like this American robin (Turdus migratorius), a small NY native in the middle of something much bigger, this week at the United Nations’ first ever Oceans meeting

The U.N. Oceans conference represents a new endeavor in global cooperation.  On a much smaller scale, it also is a new opportunity for me to dive into the world of marine policy.  Surrounding the main event of national pledges and exhortations in the General Assembly, there have been dozens of side events on a wide range of marine sustainability issues.  They have focused on questions of policy rather than science, and I have suddenly found myself out of my depth—no better time to get learning in earnest!  One of the major themes of these side events have focused on “the blue economy,” a reimaging of human prosperity as ultimately relying on an interdependence with the ocean and natural ecosystems.  Getting from this kind of broad ideal to concrete actions requires levels upon levels of study; discussion with all relevant stakeholders; and coordination across communities, organizations, and governments.  As a result, these sessions can seem overwhelming, slow, and procedural in their necessarily complicated and careful navigation of these challenges.  They are frankly often unsatisfying to a scientist, used in conferences to hear in bite-sized fifteen-minute scientific stories, with hypotheses, results, and conclusions, with structured analysis and objective answers.  By comparison, the answers in policy discussions seem to come so slowly and the bedrock rooting in scientific reasoning is harder to see through this many ecological, sociological, economic, and institutional layers of complexity.

I talk about the research needs in the field with mangrove blue carbon expert Andy Steven (CSIRO) at a U.N. side event on the future of blue carbon to help mitigate climate change and ocean degradation.

Of course, it could be no other way; real-world policy issues are exceedingly complicated.  Still, the experience finds me struggling to find out where my research and approach can fit into this multifarious process.  Many speakers stress the need for more and better science to make all the proposed ocean monitoring and protection efforts possible.  I have been struck by how governments, NGOs, and even business seem to have more representation at these events than academic institutions.  In response, I have tried, especially in discussions on the topics of research on mangrove ecosystems and coastal blue carbon that I conduct with the Gulf of California Marine Program, to make clear how much environmental knowledge and ecological understanding needs to be attained to solve our society’s ocean challenges.  This need is broadly understood by all involved, but actually connecting the results offered by researchers to the efforts being made by policy leaders requires work.  I hope that researchers and students continue to attend events such as the U.N. Oceans conference and actively advance science’s role in our global efforts for sustainability.  Delving deeply into fundamental questions about nature will always hold the promise of providing useful and inspiring data, tools, and ideas for making our world a better place.


Author: Matthew Coasta

PhD student, SIO

Matthew Costa is a Regents Fellow 2013-4 and NSF Graduate Research Fellow 2014-present, and is pursuing a Ph.D. in biological oceanography as part of the Gulf of California Marine Program. He is interested in community ecology, biodiversity and functional diversity, and coastal ecosystem processes and services. His research focuses on carbon storage in sediments of the mangrove forests in the southern Gulf of California. Prior to study at SIO, he completed a B.A. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University studying mangrove species zonation in Bermuda.

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