Under The Sea – The State of Ocean Research Today – transcript

Ideas to Innovation - Season Two


Brodie Pearson: One of the most exciting things about this report was that we could use the enormous amounts of data that Ross collected to ask questions about vastly different topics. We looked at really large scale metrics and found the global connectedness of ocean research. We looked at which countries are studying which regions of the ocean, and which nations those countries are collaborating with in the studies.

We found some things there like a concerning lack of international collaboration with some coastal communities. We were also able to zoom in on really specific research areas. One of the things we identified was a recent growth surge in microplastics research as an ocean research topic.

VO: Ideas to Innovation from Clarivate.

Neville Hobson: The fate of the earth is tied inextricably to our oceans. Given the toll that humans have exacted on the marine environment within a relative handful of decades, the need for detailed scientific scrutiny of our ocean basins has never been more acute. The significance of this is recognized by a number of United Nations programs, as well as the 2022 UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon, Portugal, this past summer.

A new global report called Ocean Science Sustainability Concerns Add Urgency for Research published by the Institute for Scientific Information at Clarivate, highlights the growing body of research in this area, particularly around sustainability and topics such as microplastics in the ocean. The report shows that ocean acidification, marine pollution, and over-fishing have caused tremendous damage to Earth’s oceans and the life within them. Therefore, the health and sustainability of our oceans remain a particular challenge for researchers worldwide. Hello and welcome to Ideas to Innovation season two, I am Neville Hobson.

In this episode, we are fortunate to have as our guests, the two authors of the global report I mentioned, Ross Potter and Brodie Pearson. Ross is a senior data scientist at the Institute for Scientific Information. He has extensive research experience within academia, including NASA-related post-doctoral positions at the Luna and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas, and Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Brodie is an assistant professor at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. He studies the physics of mixing in the ocean using computer models, and was recently part of the intergovernmental panel on Climate Change Sixth Assessment report team. Welcome, gentlemen.

Ross Potter: Thank you.

Brodie Pearson: Thank you. Happy to be here.

Neville: Great. Why don’t we dive straight in. My first question to you both is this, why is this research and your report so important right now? Ross, would you like to kick off?

Ross: I think the importance of oceans on our planet is encapsulated in this quote attributed to the author Arthur C Clark, where he said, “How inappropriate to call this planet Earth, when it is quite clearly ocean.” Now, 70% of the surface of the Earth is ocean, and the oceans have a significant role in supporting life and mediating at climate, which Brodie can comment on more.

Brodie: The oceans play many key roles in governing climate change, and one of the main roles they play is that they act as a buffer for changes in the atmosphere. We often talk about warming of the atmosphere, but most of the energy that comes into the planet and warms the planet actually goes into the ocean. The ocean acts kind of as a buffer, lowering the temperature change we might see in the atmosphere.

At the same time, it stores that heat and can release it over hundreds of years in the future. From a more human perspective, the oceans are also essential for their blue economy, which is the multi-billion dollar industry, and as part of that, fisheries provide income and sustenance for countless coastal communities. The health of these fisheries is inextricably tied to the conditions of the ocean itself.

Neville: Listening to what you’re saying is quite interesting. Think about the research aspect. I know that your research showed a huge amount of growth in the research area and the work you’re doing with attention on those basics. Would you talk a bit about that, those ocean basics, and the kind of volume of data that you’ve been collecting?

Ross: Yes. To carry out our research, we use data available from the Web of Science, which is owned by Clarivate. What we were specifically looking in is, what is the state of ocean science today in terms of its research, how has it changed over the past 20 years or so, and what the future is ahead for it. We were looking at a data set covering 20 years from 2000 to 2020.

We were specifically interested in the amount of papers and academic papers that have been put together focused on ocean research. Now, it can be a very broad data set. Ocean science can cover lots of different areas of science from engineering to chemistry to physics, even more, social and political aspects as well. Choosing a suitable data set to be able to fully represent ocean science was a bit of a challenge.

Neville: That’s interesting you say that. That was one of the questions I was going to ask. This is now a good time to ask it. Can you talk a bit about those, the challenges that you did confront, Ross? Because with so much data, in my mind I’m thinking about things like quality as opposed to quantity in determining the value of all the stuff that you have there. I guess that was a challenge or maybe it wasn’t. What’s your thinking on that?

Ross: It was a challenge in terms of coming up with a suitable way to collect the data set that would best represent ocean science research. Partly because, as I mentioned before, it can cover lots of different areas and topics, specifically focusing on a set topic, and why that may be good for that particular topic. It wouldn’t necessarily be represented the whole of ocean science. To be able to have a broader look, we decided to look more at doing searches for particular words within article titles and abstracts. This is where Brodie’s experience with ocean science came in to be able to provide me with a super collection of terms that cover in the broad assessments possible, the content that would be related to ocean science.

Neville: Let me turn to Brodie actually. That actually leads me into something I’m keen to learn from you both what stood out to you the most, and maybe that might have been part of it. Brodie, what’s your view on that? What was the standout from your findings? What can you say about that?

Brodie: I think actually there were a couple of things. In general, one of the most exciting things about this report was that we could use the enormous amounts of data that Ross collected to ask questions about vastly different topics. We looked at really large scale metrics and found the global connectedness of ocean research. We looked at which countries are studying which regions of the ocean, and which nations those countries are collaborating with in the studies.

We found some things there like a concerning lack of international collaboration with some coastal communities like particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa. We were also able to zoom in on really specific research areas. A lot of the analysis that Ross did drilled down into the level of specific research topics. One of the things we identified was a recent growth surge in microplastics research as an ocean research topic.

Neville: While we’re on that topic, microplastics, I think, is making news headlines almost everywhere, mostly because of these huge quantities of plastic waste in our oceans. We see images on our TVs. We hear stories of people trying to gather all this stuff to remove it from the oceans. The rapid upsurge of publications you mentioned on microplastics, is that because of that, do you think, or is that something that researches recognize no matter what the public perception is of this? Is this the biggest thing that we should be concerned about in ocean pollution?

Brodie: I think you’re absolutely right that the upsurge in microplastics research is due to the factors that you mentioned. Plastics are littering the oceans everywhere. You find them everywhere you look in the oceans, and they play a lot of harmful roles. As the plastics break down, they release gases which contribute to the warming of the planet. They have a role in climate change, but they also have a direct role in the health of organisms in the ocean.

As the plastics break down into really small pieces, they get absorbed by ocean organisms. It’s not clear at the moment what health impacts those microplastics might have as they accumulate in the food chain, including for humans who eventually eat a lot of those organisms from the ocean. That surge in research probably reflects this essential need to understand the effects of microplastics better.

Neville: Hence precise of that. I was just thinking that too. That’s interesting that you say that. Microplastics have been studied for quite a while. Will this move any needles, I guess is one way I would put it from a lay point of view, in terms of actual action or awareness, or attention, or what might happen from all this upsurge about microplastics, do you think?

Brodie: I think that it’s a very significant upsurge. Ross can talk a little bit about exactly what the data shows in terms of how big that upsurge is. I think it really is moving the needle. There’s a lot more awareness now and a lot more focus, and a lot more– we have a better ability to measure and understand the effects of microplastics in the ocean now than we did a decade ago or more.

Neville: Ross, can you chip into what Brodie’s saying there? What’s your thinking about this?

Ross: As was mentioned, microplastics is a topic that has been around for a while in terms of its research, but it has rapidly increased over the past 10 years, especially the last five years. Part of that might be due to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. This is our group of 17 goals with the aim of basically putting together a more sustainable planet, and so you can all benefit from that.

One of them is particularly focused on life below water. Within that, obviously, that deals with lots of aspects of life below water, but with the microplastics, the upsurge in publications there might as well be to do with the amount of funding that’s also been available given the sustainable development goals and to be able to achieve these. That might be part of the reason why we’ve also seen a rapid increase in publications.

Neville: I’m actually curious about one thing too that’s in my mind, listening to both of you, you clearly have deep knowledge of these broad topics. I’m curious to ask both of you, actually, what’s the driver for both of you in why you did this research? What is the interest to you personally, and what drives your passion about this particular topic? Can you throw some light onto that?

Ross: I think Brodie and I have similar backgrounds academically. My background is in geophysics. I spend a lot of my undergraduate degree dealing with the effects of climate change and globally Earth-related topics. For me it’s, in a way, harking back to my undergraduate days, what I was learning through that. Also just my natural interest in being an Earth and planetary scientist, understanding how planets work, and especially with Earth of how the ocean is involved with how all life on Earth gets on.

Neville: Got it. Brodie, what about you?

Brodie: I was drawn to the mystery of the ocean. It’s really hard to go and observe what’s actually happening in the ocean, especially below the surface. I’m intrigued by developing a better understanding of the processes that are happening in the ocean, and the impacts that those processes could have on the climate system. Everything, the ocean, the atmosphere, the land surface, they’re all connected in this complex system. Understanding the processes of that system is really important for understanding how the Earth system is going to evolve in the future.

Neville: It actually makes me think of it because there’s been a lot of awareness, I think, recently. I’ve certainly noticed a lot of people talking about the risk of flooding in coastal cities and communities and all around the world, literally, and all over social networks, I’ve seen people posting images of projections of the flooding that will take place. You’ve got that kind of worrying factor. Microplastics, I think, is a big one. I’m just thinking your research overall points of many alarming areas of concern that we should be paying attention to, I suppose.

Also, I think the growing awareness about what really is happening and perhaps how to address it. Although I’m wondering whether, to many people, thinking about intergovernmental corporations and things like that seems to take a long time, whereas we have a sense of urgency about what’s going on and what we need to address. I guess my question to you both then is what’s the message of hope here from your report, and what can listeners to this conversation take away from your analysis right now, do you think? What can you say to that?

Ross: I think the report shows that in terms of the number of publications that have come out for ocean science, it’s certainly increased a lot in the last 20 years. Just purely from a science perspective, there’s been a lot more focus on ocean sciences. I think as well as you mentioned, there’s also in the public, there’s been far greater media attention and availability, making people more aware of what’s going on.

Yes, the report is highlighting where the ocean science stands today. I think really we’re looking to represent what the position is currently in ocean science, and what can be done in the future. I think, again, having more media attention and more around ocean science generally, I think will help the public try to get more involved in it, even potentially motivate the scientists of the future to also get into topics like this.

Brodie: I think spinning off what Ross just said, one of the most encouraging things is this growth in number of publications in ocean science that we’ve seen, which is faster than the growth of publications in science in general. One of the things that I think that growth will help with is helping us identify and shed light on what we should expect in the future, especially at a regional level. Like you mentioned, sea level rise and flooding disproportionately affects certain regions. Hopefully, this increase in research will give us a better idea of what to expect in the future in specific regions, which can allow us to anticipate and adapt better for those changes.

Neville: I like the hope that you’re sharing here in what is next, as it were. That leads me to ask you a final question. Extending the message of hope is how I’m thinking it would be nice to see this, I hope you agree with that, but the question I think is, how do you both see the next five to eight years? That’s a disguise way of saying what’s 2030 going to look like? What can we expect for our oceans on this planet? In light of your report, of course, and the things you point out, but between now and then, and when we get to 2030, what will things look like, do you think? Ross, what do you think of that?

Ross: Well, one thing to point out is a lot of the global initiatives around not only climate change and ocean science, but in general, have a timeline to be complete by 2030. This includes the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. They’re looking to get everything done by 2030. 2021 to 2030 is also the UN decade of ocean science. It’s very much a particular focus for the UN and other governmental bodies. I think you will see a continual increase in research on oceans going up to the end of the decade.

Obviously, there are things that are unseen at the moment that we don’t know about. Potentially climate change impacts, it could change drastically in the next five or so years. Obviously, there might be course corrections in terms of the subjects or topics that need attention. I think there will be certainly a push toward the end of the decade to try and best achieve the sustainable development goals, which will obviously hopefully lead to a more sustainable future for the oceans and for Earth as well.

Neville: Brodie, what do you think?

Brodie: I think that over the next decade or so, we’re going to see the emergence of more of these climate-driven challenges for ocean communities and ecosystems. This past summer, for example, we’ve seen all sorts of stuff, including a recent decimation of Alaskan snow crabs, which has completely shut down an entire fishing industry for the year, that’s worth hundreds of millions of dollars. I think as we see those climate-driven impacts become more frequent, I hope that we’ll also see a global community that’s more motivated and in a better position to adapt to those challenges.

I think that the research increase the development of more ocean research that we’ve seen in our report. If that trend continues, then we’ll be in a good place to address that. The other thing that I think is really important is that we also saw a lack of collaborations with certain coastal communities as I mentioned in Sub-Saharan Africa particularly. I hope that we may be able to build some of those collaborative communities over the next decade, providing this kind of targeted funding to do so. That should help us be able to address those challenges more globally.

Neville: I think it’s a pretty good message of hope you’ve both outlined there. I’d like to thank you, Ross and Brodie, for your time and sharing your knowledge and insights about ocean science, and your comprehensive analysis of current research, and what we might expect in the next decade. Thank you both.

Ross: Thank you.

Brodie: Thank you.

Neville: For detailed information about the trends, challenges, and opportunities in ocean science highlighted in the report and to download a copy, visit clarivate.com and search ocean science. Season two of Ideas to Innovation continues with our next episode in a few weeks’ time. Visit clarivate.com/podcasts for information. Thanks for listening.


VO: Ideas to innovation, from Clarivate.