We depend on our marine environment for many human activities from fishing to transport to recreation; however, we are not managing our seas sustainably. Human impacts on the ocean are increasing globally, with many commercial fish stocks overfished, plastic found throughout the world’s seas, and the recent loss of approximately 1/3 of tropical coral reefs due to ocean warming. These human impacts are most severe in highly populated shelf seas such as those around Japan and Europe, where the marine ecosystem is used particularly intensively. In order to ensure marine ecosystems are available for future generations to use and enjoy, we must find a way to sustainably manage human use of the marine environment.
Our oceans and seas are managed through policy decisions at multiple political scales – from local decisions, such as which sections of coastline to develop; to national directives about fishing regulations; to regional and international conservation agreements, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity. These decisions seek to regulate human activities at different spatial scales in order to achieve management goals or targets that support a desired vision for marine ecosystems. Ideally, policy decisions should be based on robust scientific evidence, with scientific knowledge carefully considered before enacting a policy. In reality, however, this is not always the case. For example, during the past decade, the scientific community has authored thousands of papers about the increasing depletion of global fish stocks, yet more than half of commercial fisheries are still not sustainably managed. The science to support fishing sustainability clearly exists, but most fish stocks continue to be overfished. Somewhere between carrying out the science and making policy decisions, the message that we need to change the way that we fish is getting lost. Unfortunately, overfishing is just one example of the disruption between good science and good decisions. Many other cases exist, from poorly managed development damaging coastal habitats to underwater noise from shipping causing behavioural changes in deep diving whales. The exchange of information between scientists and policymakers clearly must be improved.
The two-way flow of scientific research, policy needs, and ideas between scientists and policy-makers is critical to the use of evidence in decision making. The scientific and policy communities should work together to integrate scientific research into the decision-making process. Such collaboration, however, can be challenging for several reason. Firstly, the communication formats respected in the scientific community, such as peer-reviewed publications and scientific conference talks, are not appropriate to disseminate research to policy and decision makers. Policy makers and scientists communicate in their own jargon-centric languages, which leads to miscommunications and a lack of understanding between the two groups. Consequently, scientific research may not be integrated in to the decision making process, with policymakers left either unaware of or not clearly understanding how science can support and inform management. In general, policy-makers are not marine scientists, and therefore require scientists to communicate targeted scientific information about the marine environment clearly to them. Additionally, marine ecosystems, such as the coral reefs and kelp forests found in Japanese waters, are more difficult to access than terrestrial environments, often requiring SCUBA or snorkelling gear. For policy-makers, this lack of access presents challenges in relating human pressure to change in marine ecosystems and envisioning what healthy marine ecosystems look like.
Often, scientists have only a vague understanding of the policy landscape and may therefore not recognise connections between their research and policy needs. One reason for this is that limited funding is available for scientists to input into the policy process so scientists might not think it is worth their time investing in understanding policy needs, or they may feel policymakers are not interested in their scientific work. A further complication is that policymakers work to tight timescales making it difficult for scientists to respond to queries or calls for evidence. Finally, the route through which scientists can engage with decision makers may be unclear, with policymakers unsure of which scientific experts to contact on issues and scientists confused about which policymakers may need to know about their scientific research.
The above challenges can begin to be addressed through increasing open communication and trust between scientists and policymakers. For example, both scientists and policymakers can hold focus groups and workshops to bring the two sides together. Such meetings often take place as part of projects or alongside conferences, and provide an opportunity for scientists and policymakers to get to know each other and develop working relationships. By talking to policy makers, scientists can tailor their research to meet direct policy needs. Equally, by talking to scientists, policy makers can better understand the evidence that is provided to them, and gain an appreciation of future management challenges from a scientific perspective.
To further improve communication to policymakers, scientists can disseminate their work by writing policy-targeted briefings and factsheets which explicitly link scientific research to policy needs. Such publications are most effective if they are short, focused, and written in clear language, free of jargon. For example, the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) produces POSTnotes, which are brief, accessible syntheses of scientific research placed in a policy context These POSTnotes are used by UK Parliamentarians and civil servants to better understand the current science and how it relates to upcoming political decisions. Social media, such as Twitter and blogging, is also an efficient way to engage non-scientists in scientific research; creating public support for an issue can raise its profile, increasing visibility to policymakers. Lastly, scientists can get involved in science-policy working groups such as the North Pacific Marine Science Organisation (PICES) which produces advice for policymakers and managers.
Though working across the science-policy interface has its challenges, clear benefits exist for both scientists and policymakers. The use of scientific evidence in policymaking increases the likelihood that management decisions will achieve sustainability while linking science to policymaking raises the profile of scientific research and can provide a route through which to pursue funding. This close science-policy collaboration is needed to ensure policy decisions about managing human activities in the marine environment are based on robust scientific knowledge.