Report from the 2008 Ocean Science Summit

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse making a point on ocean governance with Judy Kildow

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse making a point on ocean governance with Judy Kildow

By Judy Kildow, chair and event organizer, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI)

Under warm, sunny skies along Monterey Bay in California last May, marine scientists and engineers met with leading legislators and policy makers to confront some cold, hard, disturbing facts: Greenhouse gas emissions and other human-induced impacts are threatening the health of marine life, and coordinated action between policy makers and scientists is needed now to address this enormous problem. Scientists noted that ocean acidification is almost unknown to the public. Yet, this growing phenomenon poses a profound challenge to science and looms among the largest threats to the stability of ocean habitat. For example, the lower pH is causing the loss of some 38% of the dissolved carbonate ion required for the formation of shells of many marine animals (Brewer, 1997) leaving at risk a wide variety of organisms. Policy makers indicated there were legislative initiatives, such as H.R. 4174, the Ocean Acidification Bill, which would benefit from more input from the scientists; however, communication between the cultures still is being defined.

The Event

The 115 participants at the 2008 Ocean Science Summit were primarily leaders from science and government: U.S. senators, congressional representatives, senior staff members from Capitol Hill, other national and California state government officials, and leading marine scientists and engineers from across the nation. The meeting, which coincided with the tenth anniversary of the United Nations’ Year of the Oceans, was made possible by a David and Lucile Packard Foundation grant to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), which partnered with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the California Council on Science and Technology, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s (NOAA) National Marine Sanctuary Program.

The Challenges for Two Cultures

The diverse group of scientists and engineers described the dramatic gains in understanding the ocean environment that have been made over the past decade. They also described the rapidly emerging challenges that were outlined in a scientific briefing paper that was reviewed by all participating scientists and distributed to all attendees prior to the meeting. These challenges include a) managing and mitigating risks from ocean changes related to climate change—ocean acidification, increasing sea temperature, and sea level rise; b) addressing human activities that exacerbate CO2-driven changes and threaten human and ocean health, such as run-off, harmful algal blooms, etc; and c) the need to match ocean technologies with emerging national priorities, and to find new technologies that will support science and fuel American competitiveness.

Summit participants also tried to address and begin to resolve broader problems associated with the effective use of the information generated from scientific research. These problems include:

1) Climate change discussions have largely ignored the plight of the oceans, although the oceans cover over seventy percent of the Earth, and are the primary driver of climate processes;

2) The science reward system does not encourage scientists to become involved in the political process;

3) Policy makers rarely have significant time to delve into the details of science;

4) A suggestion, not a problem is that personal connections among members of Congress, legislative staff and scientists help demystify both cultures and encourage meaningful exchange, and

5) Both science and policy making are moving faster than information transfers via traditional pathways. Hence, customary methods for transmitting scientific information for use in policymaking are problematic.

Figure 1 Summit Topics and Panel Themes

Figure 1 Summit Topics and Panel Themes

The Topics and Themes

On the agenda were presentations that 1) explored the achievements in science, technology and governance over the past decade, 2) described severe ocean problems that need attention, 3) described funding limitations and explored new opportunities, and 4) explained legislative initiatives that would benefit from input from scientists. Figure 1 shows how this process worked for three discussion themes and four topics. Keynote speakers set the tone for each panel discussion and subsequent small-group round tables.

One highlight of the conference was a half-day dedicated to field expeditions, including cruises on five research vessels and a coast walk. From estuarine ecology to deep-water experiments and shoreline change and hazards, conference attendees had an opportunity to discuss important marine science questions in depth, while enjoying a perfect day on Monterey Bay.

Most participants agreed that more attention should be paid to oceans issues in climate change discussions, legislation, and programs; however, funding seems to be a major issue. One panel consisting of foundation program directors, state and national government officials (including one from the National Science Foundation), and an industry executive observed that long-term funding for ocean research—particularly that needed to track the effects of climate change and ocean health—was not available. They discussed the possibilities of new partnerships and encouraged new ideas for collaboration that would attract untapped money that could be coordinated for this purpose.   Several panelists noted the paucity of collaborations and funding between the academic research community and industry, for example, and between the civilian and military sectors. They contrasted the current situation to earlier decades when interests and connections among these groups were more common and fruitful.

Scientists stressed that the lack of long-term strategic funding for research technology hinders their capacity to obtain key information about the oceans. As a consequence, incomplete models of the oceans constrain both scientists and policy makers from making timely, informed decisions.  Some scientists argued that there was potential for enormous progress, but that ocean models lag decades behind atmospheric models. They added that until we have a fuller understanding of ocean systems, atmospheric models will be limited since oceans are an important driver of planetary systems – including climate.

There was widespread agreement that key scientific questions must be addressed, particularly regarding ocean-chemistry changes and their impacts on marine life.  Decisions about scientific priorities and policy directions are urgently needed, but current systems do not function effectively.  The scientists and policy makers agreed to give higher priority to helping each other protect the oceans.

Framing the Vision for the Future: Rep. Sam Farr, Marcia McNutt, Leon Panetta, and Mike Sutton with event chair, Judy Kildow

Framing the Vision for the Future: Rep. Sam Farr, Marcia McNutt, Leon Panetta, and Mike Sutton with event chair, Judy Kildow

Policy-relevant Science

Marine scientists admitted they need to provide more policy-relevant science, and that their messages need to be clearer and less ambiguous so that legislators and policy makers can better understand how to link the sometimes-esoteric scientific information to the needs of their constituents — and to pursue more informed policies. Policy makers indicated they needed timely information from the scientists, especially regarding such pending legislation as the Ocean Acidification Bill, the Coastal Management Act Reauthorization, and Oceans 21, which would establish a comprehensive National Oceans Policy and guiding principles for use and management of U.S. coasts, oceans, and Great Lakes and their resources.

Since most marine scientists and engineers rarely follow the legislative process they need assistance and encouragement to engage in that process.  How that will happen is uncertain. A number of organizations represented at the Summit – Ocean Leadership, Center for Ocean Solutions, COMPASS and AAAS – can assist in this effort.

In summary, the summit:

•    Confirmed the urgent need for the science community to better synthesize, characterize, and communicate critical ocean health threats and potential solutions to decision makers.

•    Enhanced the capabilities of many scientists and engineers to communicate their ocean research to policy makers through a pre-summit workshop.

•    Created a foundation for dialogue and stimulated thinking about ocean issues within the science and policy communities, by creating a lively, inspiring, and unhurried environment that promoted the sharing of ideas.

•    Opened a window onto “the world of scientists and engineers” for legislative staff, and conversely, Capitol Hill for the scientists and engineers, and identified gaps between the two worlds.

Observing the ROV Ventana perform a deep-water dive into the Monterey Submarine Canyon aboard the R/V Point Lobos proved to be a one-in-a-lifetime experience for Adina Abeles, Mele Williams, Jeff Watters, Dahlia Sokolov, and Ken Calderia while Peter Brewer explained life in the cold and low-oxygen/high-CO2 waters.

Observing the ROV Ventana perform a deep-water dive into the Monterey Submarine Canyon aboard the R/V Point Lobos proved to be a one-in-a-lifetime experience for Adina Abeles, Mele Williams, Jeff Watters, Dahlia Sokolov, and Ken Calderia while Peter Brewer explained life in the cold and low-oxygen/high-CO2 waters.

The Future

Underlying the final recommendations and action items from the summit was the need to build consensus in the marine science community – similar to that found in other disciplines. Atmospheric scientists, for example, have traditionally spoken with a single voice and had success in pursuing their agendas. The steps below spell out a strategy that could help consolidate the disparate interests in the marine community with the goal of bringing critical ocean issues to the attention of decision makers for this country and the world to address.

1.    Adopt a large-scale organizational initiative on ocean/climate change on the scale of the Manhattan or Apollo projects, to mobilize funds for long-term programs and commitments.

2.    Stimulate the formation of a joint House-Senate Oceans Caucus, and strengthen the House Oceans Caucus.  Perhaps link these groups with the International Environmental Caucus sponsored by Conservation International on Capitol Hill.

3.    Establish a working group to identify priorities and target markets with clear messages about oceans and climate change.

4.    Make the Ocean Science Summit an annual or biennial event.

5.    Hold regular briefings on Capitol Hill on key ocean issues.

6.    Issue regular ocean-related briefing papers generated by marine scientists and groomed for policy makers.

7.    Make communications training for marine scientists and social scientists widely available.

8.    Create a scientific consensus statement on marine research priorities for understanding the impacts of climate change on ocean health.

9.    Create new ideas to stimulate public interest in the oceans, such as putting ocean information on weather pages of newspapers and news websites.

All of the above recommendations require leadership from one or more respected organization(s). MBARI initiated the first steps toward solving the problem of communicating policy-relevant marine science by hosting the summit. The next step toward implementing this short, but important list is for appropriate groups to take on these responsibilities.

A detailed report from this summit, including the scientific briefing paper, is available at


Brewer, P.G., (1997) Ocean chemistry of the fossil fuel CO2 signal: the haline signature of “Business as usual.” Geophysical Research Letters, v. 24, 1367-1369.

Judith T. Kildow
Social Scientist
Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
7700 Sandholdt Road
Moss Landing, CA 95039
Phone: (831) 775-2075
Fax: (831) 775-1620