A new method of surveying published research, which has highlighted current issues faced by the marine environment, hopes to place scientific knowledge at the heart of policy agendas.
— By Tania Fitzgeorge-Balfour
Covering two-thirds of our planet, the ocean was once thought to be too big to be threatened by human activity. Scientific evidence now shows that our use and abuse of this environment is having a detrimental effect on marine habitats across the globe.
New research, published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Marine Science details current threats to our coasts and oceans, and potential solutions to these problems, as detailed by the focus of research undertaken by marine scientists over the past ten years.
“The amount of marine research being published is growing rapidly,” says Murray Rudd, an Associate Professor of Environmental Sciences, who carried out this research at the Emory University, Atlanta, USA. “There are a number of topics, such as the effects of climate change, marine plastic and debris, conservation, and increasingly, the human and social dimensions of ocean use and management, that are now the focus of major and emerging research efforts.”
Professor Rudd sifted through the tens of thousands of relevant scientific studies from the past decade using a method called ‘text mining’, which has only just become possible with recent advances in computing power and software. This method involved large-scale scans of written text, to assess how different words and phrases are used.
“I looked at the summaries of over fifty-thousand ocean and coastal science research articles and assessed how language relating to ocean challenges and their solutions varied over time. That allowed me to identify trends, emerging ‘hot topics’ in ocean research, and to see what types of solutions were most often proposed for specific challenges,” explains Professor Rudd.
As well as revealing the problems faced by our coasts and oceans, the survey highlighted how some of the solutions put forward to resolve these issues differed in focus. For example, Integrated Coastal Zone Management, a strategy that aims to ensure all the interests of those involved in the development, management and use of the coast are taken into consideration, was frequently mentioned in conjunction with sea-level rise, but few other issues. In addition, marine protected areas, once thought to be a tool for fisheries management, are now also seen as a way to help buffer ecological systems from predicted climate change effects, such as changes in ocean chemistry and temperature. The survey also found that the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 generated a surge in focused research relating to this catastrophic event.
Professor Rudd hopes his research will demonstrate that the method of ‘text mining’ scientific publications will enable governments and international institutions to methodically track and identify important and emerging ocean sustainability issues, and the organizations and scientists who work on them.
“Oceans and coasts are crucially important for human society, especially for the 2.4 billion people that live within 100 km of the coast,” he explains. “We have seen some issues that are very important to the public – marine plastic pollution is a good example – rapidly receiving increased research effort. We don’t fully understand however, how emerging issues of concern catch the public’s attention and get onto government’s policy agenda, nor how scientists can and should communicate their research findings so that new knowledge about ocean and coastal sustainability is put to good use. Future research on the dynamics of information exchange between scientists, the public, and decision-makers in government and business is a natural next step for some of the specific research topics that were flagged in my exploratory study.”
Professor Rudd concludes by advising we combine all our global scientific knowledge for the good of our marine environment. “To sustain the oceans, and the benefits they provide us, we need to be able to use all the information from scientific research to help decision-makers weigh-up options about how we use the ocean and where / when we need to protect it. The ocean is dynamic and complex, often with long time lags before we can reverse the consequences of human activities, so building our scientific understanding is essential, if future generations are to inherit healthy oceans.”