Sharing Blog

Bringing transdiciplinarity in science-policy interface for ocean sustainability

Senia Febrica

One Ocean Hub, University of Strathclyde, UK

Visit website
  • Ocean Governance,
  • oceans,
  • research,
  • research in oceans,
  • United Nations,
  • local knowledge,
  • local leaders,
  • coastal communities,
  • community,
  • communities
Target Group
  • Students,
  • Policy makers,
  • Researchers,
  • Entrepreneurs,
  • Artists,
  • Community workers,
  • Teachers,
  • Youth
  • English

This blog post reflects on the key messages shared the webinar on “Strengthening the Science-Policy Interface for Ocean Sustainability”.

This blog post reflects on the key messages shared at a recent webinar on “Strengthening the Science-Policy Interface for Ocean Sustainability” and the One Ocean Hub’s earlier events on these issues at World Oceans Week 2020 and part of the UN Nippon Fellow Alumni capacity-building programme in 2020.

The webinar on “Strengthening the Science-Policy Interface for Ocean Sustainability” was organised by the United Nations Office of Legal Affairs, Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea, in cooperation with the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO on 1st March 2021. It marked the release of the Second World Ocean Assessment, the start of the third cycle of the UN Regular Process for Global Reporting and Assessment of the State of the Marine Environment, including Socioeconomic Aspects (2021-2025), and the beginning of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030). The key message from the webinar was a call for integrated ocean management and a coherent understanding of the impact of human activities on marine ecosystems.


The seminar was opened by Miguel de Serpa Soares, Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs and United Nations Legal Counsel; Juliette Babb-Riley, Co-Chair of the Ad Hoc Working Group of the Whole of the General Assembly on the Regular Process and Deputy Permanent Representative of Barbados to UN; and Vladimir Ryabinin, Executive Secretary of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO. De Serpa Soares highlighted the challenges in making science understandable to public and decision makers. He and Babb-Riley pointed to the need to ensure that policy decisions are rooted in science and knowledge, as the World Ocean Assessment report reveals a negative trend in ocean ecosystems to address the declining ocean health worldwide. Ryabinin in his opening remarks stressed how the ocean can sustain impressive economy that worth the equivalent of 50 trillion USD in 2050, prioritizing integrated science-based ocean management. He stressed the importance of the inclusion of social sciences in the cycle of regular process of ocean assessment and in mainstreaming sustainability of the ocean.

These comments chime with the Hub’s tools and technology to support ecosystem mapping and sustainable fisheries, which have been developed across marine and social sciences.  On that basis, Hub-led events for the World Oceans Week 2020 and the UN Nippon Fellow Alumni capacity-building programme in 2020 raised the following key points on what it means to integrate social sciences in ocean research:

  1. Certain forms of knowledge and technologies exert influence on people and policy-making in ocean governance.
  2. Research can reveal dominant ways of seeing and can help us recognise and learn from a broader range of voices and concerns.
  3. Alternative (including extra-legal) processes and creative methodologies can work to include intangible heritage and indigenous knowledge into policy- and decision-making spaces.

In addition, the Hub-led event also underscored the different contributions of different social sciences to the ocean science-policy interface, including:

  1. Political science reveals the complexity of decision-making and windows of opportunity through which changes necessary for equitable visions for sustainable ocean policy can be leveraged.
  2. Anthropological research can help produce sustainable oceans policies that reflect the lived realities of life in, on, and around the ocean.
  3. Economics can help link across social and ecological sciences to inform sustainable ocean policy.
  4. History can bridge multiple perspectives to inform inclusive and sustainable ocean policy that takes into account social and environmental justice so as to avoid reproducing or reinforcing inequalities of the past.
  5. Legal research can contribute to avoid impacts on coastal livelihood by indicating how issues surrounding historical and current access and rights of local people need to be considered.


The first panel of the UN webinar focused on “Knowledge needs to inform sustainable ocean governance at all levels.” It brings together leading experts including Jacqueline Uku, President of the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association; Jian Liu, Chief Scientist of UN Environment Programme and Director of the Science Division, UN Environment Programme; and David Millar, Fugro, United States-based group active in the Seabed 2030 Ocean Mapping project.  Uku explained how scientists should move beyond focusing on publications and seek to build capacity of others, develop partnerships with varied and relevant organisations, and influence policy. Liu drew attention to the huge gap of information about the ocean in comparison to terrestrial ecosystems. He noted that engaging all stakeholders is essential to address this gap of information and increase buy-in for efforts to tackle the challenges facing the ocean.

Liu’s comment on stakeholder engagement and cooperation with non-academic actors are in line with the One Ocean Hub’s approach in adopting transdisciplinarity and working with experts from varied disciplines and stakeholders. The Hub’s experience points to the need to be strategic about where it directs its transdiciplinarity approaches because ‘there is no guarantee that excellent evidence that is predicted to have impact will be taken up by the target audience-implementer’ (Wahome, 2020). Therefore, the Hub as part of its efforts to transform research from academic pursuit to a problem-solving effort has built relational accountability and collective leadership (see Wahome, 2020). For example, the Hub’s Executive Team that serves as the decision-making body responsible for developing, reviewing, and ensuring implementation of the Hub’s strategy, policies and plans is designed to include both researchers and stakeholder representatives (Food and Agriculture Organisation; the World Wildlife Fund).


Returning to the first panel of the UN webinar, Millar explained that 80 per cent of the seabed is currently unmapped by direct observations and 95 per cent of the deep ocean has not been observed. According to him collaboration between public and private stakeholders can be a key solution to address the gap in ocean knowledge. The Hub seeks to address this gap in ocean knowledge by strengthening partnerships across nations and between diverse ocean actors to contribute toward capacity development for beneficiaries in Small Island Developing States, Least Developed Countries and Land-locked Developing Countries. It brings together various ocean stakeholders including decision makers, scientists, civil society, and vulnerable communities (e.g. small-scale fishers impacted by large-scale fishing operators in Ghana and Solomon Islands; coastal rural/urban communities in Ghana and South Africa; climate change refugees in South Pacific and Ghana) to find integrative, holistic, and transformative solutions. Multi-faceted and lasting partnerships across sectors and scales forms an intrinsic part of the One Ocean Hub’s programme. The Hub has created a network of 39 diverse project partners from international to local levels, that have co-defined the challenges to which the Hub will respond.

Other important aspects that are key to achieving transformative oceans that the panellists did not mention is fair partnership and dialogue with various stakeholders. The One Ocean Hub research is supported and enhanced by fair partnerships and an array of programme of engagement activities to share knowledge and connect dialogue with a broad spectrum of stakeholders. The Hub’s Code of Practice highlights multiple dimensions of fairness in the process of co-designing and co-delivering research programme and outputs, including towards:

(1) vulnerable groups (“partnership” implies, for instance, being able to respond to the questions “when are you coming back?” and “how can we keep in touch between this visit and the next?”); (2) each region and across regions; (3) each researcher (see recognition under the Publication Strategy); (4) partners (including previous trust-based relationships between specific partners and specific researchers under the Hub); (5) the funders and tax-payers vis-à-vis Hub budget and in-kind contributions. Co-research is designed not to be extractive and ethics protocols can erode agency i.e. the ability of people to make choices independently and express their preferences. We aim to promote, not prevent, collaboration and mutual learning in the co-design of research with participant communities (The One Ocean Hub, 2019).

Our dialogue events and responsive research and capacity projects are designed to support capacity and institutional strengthening through seed research or knowledge exchange projects. These dialogue events also enable researchers to understand decision-makers’ research needs. From our dialogue events on Biodiversity of Areas beyond National Jurisdiction for instance we learnt about topics that negotiators deemed as the most complex and challenging issues, the need for researchers to provide succinct contributions, and the usefulness of sharing information from different regions, and creating informal networking spaces.


Speakers at the second panel of the UN webinar elaborated on various “Mechanisms to strengthen the science-policy interface at all levels.” These panelists included Ana María Hernández, Chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and Alan Simcock, Joint Coordinator of the Group of Experts for the Regular Process. Hernández elaborated a number of factors that drive biodiversity loss such as fishing, the use of sea for coastal development and aquaculture, climate change, plastics pollution, and excessive use of fertilizers. She advocated for actions to eliminate illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing that accounts for 33 per cent of total catch in 2011 and to preserve small-scale artisanal fisheries.  IUU fishing is an issue that the Hub seeks to address.

In this connection, the One Ocean Hub’s Breaking Laws on the Sea events highlighted how illegal activities which occur on the ocean can damage its ecosystems and their services and undermine our ability to reach SDG 14 (Major and Lancaster, 2020). One of the examples of illegal activities, which the Hub’s Ghana team is tackling, is saiko fishing. Saiko refers to the trade in by-catch fish that takes place across the decks of industrial trawlers and small-scale fishing fleets in Ghana (Major and Lancaster, 2020). It ‘constitutes a complex illustration of breaking laws on the sea as almost all the stages of the saiko trade are illegal yet the practice continues openly’ (Major and Lancaster 2020).

The Hub designed its research to contribute to the protection of the human rights of small-scale fishers. Our work address human rights issues in light of the real-life demands identified by the Hub among small-scale fishing communities in South Africa and Ghana. In collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization, we are planning to contribute to the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture in 2022 by clarifying the relevance of human rights of indigenous peoples and small-scale fishers.


Finally, as part of the second panel of the UN webinar, Fabien Cousteau, Aquanaut, Oceanographic Explorer, Environmental Advocate and Founder of the Fabien Cousteau Ocean Learning Center closed the webinar by stressing the necessity to improve our understanding of the ocean as people love what they understand. Knowledge of the oceans is the best heritage that we need to pass on to everyone. Along similar lines, the Hub’s ocean literacy programme, “Ocean Explorers” is a multi-disciplinary programme for primary-school pupils to connect with the ocean and build relationships and solidarity with their peers across regions in tackling common ocean challenges. Ocean literacy is also a necessary step to empower everybody to stand up for a healthy oceans on the basis of their human rights that may be negatively impacted by deteriorating ocean health, including human health.