From Research to Responsibility

Research and scientific inquiry must increase in order for us to best understand the ocean and address its critical problems; there is a responsibility of researchers and policy organizations to make public recommendations beyond the predictable and limited audience within the scientific community. How long can we reject responsibility for our indifference to the damage to human life and community? Isn’t the research  to provide us the knowledge to prevent disaster and invent new ways forward to better our lives?  Don’t we know what we must do? 

Would you rather listen to this episode? Visit World Ocean Radio.


If we accept the notion that we must understand the ocean better before we can truly address its critical problems, then research and scientific inquiry must increase with urgency commensurate with the crisis. And, indeed, research has done just that, as best it can within a political and financial context sadly antithetical to this progress.

Funding for pure science has been diminished, both by the national and global financial circumstances we face, but also by the calculated efforts of those who ideologically oppose or fear the knowledge acquired.  We have all heard of the North Carolina legislature in the US attempting to outlaw climate change by statute. As absurd is a totality by definition, there may be no additional language that can characterize the magnitude of this collective, empty expression of denial.  As the North Carolina economy depends in great part on new research being developed at its universities and science parks, this action excludes all reason.

Nonetheless, even in this atmosphere, ocean research is being advanced significantly by public and private entities in laboratories and aboard vessels worldwide. If you start to listen for it, you will hear ocean exploration and innovation announced constantly in the scientific journals and media accounts of experiments, projects, and break-throughs. Oceanography, marine biology, and ocean engineering are fast-growing specialties in colleges and graduate programs; students in America’s several maritime academies are now immediately employed upon graduation by companies involved in ocean-related enterprise.  It is a coming thing.

But here is where research must lead to responsibility.  In the many gatherings of ocean research and policy organizations I have attended, the concluding recommendations invariably focus on education and outreach as the preeminent need. In response, when I ask about specific institutional commitment to external communications as a measure of responsibility to the public outside of the institution’s immediate, predictable, and limited audience, I discover that no resources are allocated, outreach staff are first to be laid off, and actual efforts are typically driven by near-term public relations and fund-raising, little more.  In such cases, the individuals inside find little organizational support and therefore can make little or no contribution to the strategy outside deemed essential by the collective wisdom.

Once, interviewing the new president of a well-known ocean science institution, I asked what he thought it might take to transform the results of their research into policy. “Civil disobedience,” he replied. I stopped the camera. Was he joking? Did he really want to say such a thing publicly? Would he be reprimanded by trustees or colleagues for what might seem beyond the traditional purview of his distinguished organization? He stood by his response, no question, it was that important to him, and I thought, “now, there’s a scientist unafraid of taking full responsibility for his discipline and endeavor.”

In this regard, we are all in the same boat. We have concerns and informed opinions about things, be they social issues or environmental matters. But we are frustrated by the scale of issues, the forces larger than ourselves, the paralysis of institutions around us that seem no longer capable of action. We question what we can possibly do in the face of such opposition and lethargy. The crisis is so large; we are so small. How can we take responsibility for our concerns and opinions in any way that matters?

I believe scientists should advocate through responsible research and discovery in the public forum. Climate scientists have done just that, aggregated hundreds of project outcomes and reports into a collective call for action, justified by information. Yes, they could be wrong, but isn’t the question more what happens if they are right? The evidence of sea level rise, changing water temperature, resultant shifts in feeding and migration patterns of marine species, increased severity and frequency of extreme weather, wind, and wave, resultant cost of response and reconstruction  -- all these have been documented and modeled for years now. How long can we reject responsibility for our indifference to this damage to human life and community? Isn’t this what the research is for: to provide us the knowledge by which to prevent disaster and invent new ways forward to better our lives?

Don’t we know what we must do?


Peter Neill, Director of the W2O and host of World Ocean Radio, provides coverage of a broad spectrum of ocean issues from science and education to advocacy and exemplary projects.