The Value Of Marine Research

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Dr. Peter J. Nicholson's keynote address to the Dalhousie Oceans Week Gala Dinner in Halifax, Nova Scotia on June 2, 2011.

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  • THEVALUEOFMARINERESEARCH

    byDr.PeterJ.Nicholson*KeynoteAddresstothe

    DalhousieOceansWeekGalaDinnerHalifax,NovaScotia

    2June,2011

    *Dr.NicholsonisChairoftheExternalAdvisoryCommitteeoftheHalifaxMarineResearchInstituteandcanbereachedat:peter@peternicholson.org.

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    2 June, 2011

    THE VALUE OF MARINE RESEARCH

    Let me begin with thanks to Tom Traves and Martha Crago for granting me the honour of

    this privileged platform on the occasion of Dalhousie Oceans Week as we celebrate

    accomplishments past and look forward to opportunities that are brighter than ever.

    My subject this evening is the value of marine research. You may be surprised that there

    should be any question as to the value of marine research, especially since earlier today the

    Halifax Marine Research Institute (HMRI) was formally launched. You could be forgiven for

    thinking that the value inherent in the new Institutes mission must already have been well

    understood and accepted. And thats true. The value of marine research is certainly understood

    by the insiders in the academic world; and in government departments that have a marine

    mandate; and in Nova Scotias burgeoning oceans-related industries. But the fact remains that

    the support of marine research relies primarily on public funds, the supply of which will always

    be limited, and the competition for which has become fiercer than ever. So those who already

    believe in the value of marine research as clearly I do are nevertheless challenged to make a

    case for support that is compelling to the people of Nova Scotia, and indeed of Canada.

    I can think of no better way to begin making that case than with the words of Robert

    Gagosian, the former President of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who, in an article

    entitled The Mars Beneath the Waves, observed that marine research seeks to understand the

    water wilderness that covers most of our planet; which generates most of the oxygen on Earth;

    controls our climate and makes Earth habitable. He went on to describe oceanographers as

    space explorers who get wet. Both go where no one has gone before. Both seek to understand

    nature and spin off technologies and discoveries that benefit society. Both get most of their

    support from public funds. The difference, he said, is that marine researchers work where

    they live on a planet whose surface is more than 70 per cent water, which is the wellspring of

    our survival.

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    That puts it pretty succinctly. And in that tradition, we are exceptionally fortunate to

    have as a member of the External Advisory Committee of the Halifax Marine Research Institute,

    Dr. Susan Avery, a successor of Robert Gagosian as head of Woods Hole.

    The logic of my argument this evening proceeds from the abstract and quasi-

    philosophical to the very concrete, pragmatic and local.

    I will begin with some observations on the value of research generally, since much of the value of marine research is embedded in this larger context.

    I will then provide some examples to illustrate the particular, and growing, importance of marine research and the practical benefits to which this leads.

    The story to that point is global and generic. But what does it mean for Halifax, for Nova Scotia, for Atlantic Canada? My theme in this regard will be the need to build on

    strengths, and surely the oceans domain is a strength of this city, this province and this

    entire region. I will make the case for an intense focus on our marine strengths, both

    extant and potential, and by implication, the case against a strategy so often implicit in

    Canada of trying to be all things to all people, spreading our resources too thin to have

    real impact.

    Finally, I want to draw it all together in the context of the Halifax Marine Research Institute, whose inauguration we celebrate today.

    What is the value of research a term I will take to mean the organized pursuit of new

    understanding. Why should a society allocate its collective resources to support such a pursuit?

    I dont believe the answer is quite as obvious as it may first appear.

    I agree that the answer may be pretty clear if the research is undertaken in furtherance of

    a well-defined mission, the primary benefit of which can be captured by whoever is providing

    the support. That is of course why many businesses perform their own research and

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    development. It is also what motivates a lot of the work of public labs like the Bedford Institute

    and the NRCs Institute for Marine Biosciences.

    But a great deal of public funding amounting to billions of dollars each year in Canada

    is allocated in support of research that is, by and large, motivated by pure curiosity. Such

    research is of course not random or aimless. It exists within an intellectual context and seeks to

    advance the frontier of understanding in that context. But this curiosity-driven investigation

    which is the staple of research in universities is distinguished by its openness. Both its ethics

    and its practices are built on the principle of sharing of collaboration and open publication.

    I am reminded in this regard of a candid remark by the CEO of a major US aerospace

    firm regarding the stark difference in motivation between academic research and the R&D

    carried out inside his company. In the university world, he said, its publish or perish; but in

    my world, its publish and perish! Sharing our competitive secrets is the last thing we intend to

    do.

    Why should relatively small jurisdictions like Nova Scotia, or even Canada, devote

    scarce taxpayer resources to support curiosity-driven research, when the content of that research

    by virtue of the principle of openness and sharing quickly flows beyond our boundaries and

    becomes, in effect, a global resource; part of humanitys intellectual commons? Why not simply

    skimp on the investment and be a free-rider? Or at least, why not direct the publics investment

    in research much more toward the applied end of the R & D continuum where the payoff is

    more tangible, immediate and proprietary? The fact that we are seeing increasing pressure from

    governments to do just that, means that the answer is not entirely obvious.

    This issue is this when taxpayers invest, they expect and deserve a payoff. And while

    adding to the collective knowledge of mankind is surely a noble purpose and an incredibly

    powerful motivator for the individual researcher it isnt a great business proposition for

    harried taxpayers here at home. They understandably want to see the kind of benefits they can

    touch right in their own backyard hence the vogue of promoting the direct commercialization

    of research. And while immediate commercial payoff is great when it happens, it should not be

    the principal mission of academic research.

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    What, then, is the payoff within a particular jurisdiction think Nova Scotia or Canada

    from that jurisdictions support of curiosity-driven research? The payoff, overwhelmingly, is the

    production of human capital, by which I mean the highly-trained students who, whether they

    end up in business, government or other walks of life, must be counted on to apply, throughout

    their careers, the leading-edge skills and understanding acquired during the apprenticeship of

    their student days.

    And how, you may ask, is this linked to the funding of academic research? The answer is

    simply that the basic research being performed in universities today the concepts and

    techniques of which are imparted to students, primarily at the graduate level is the foundation

    of the practical, applied knowledge of tomorrow. History has shown repeatedly that what may

    now seem arcane and esoteric gives rise to the industries and wealth of the future. Only rarely

    are those industries founded by the professors. The notorious difficulty of directly

    commercializing university research is evidence of that. The task instead falls primarily to their

    students. But without the professors pushing back the boundaries of our understanding and

    instilling that new understanding in successive generations of students enterprise stagnates and

    progress would soon cease.

    So we invest, as a society, in curiosity-driven research to manufacture human capital

    that is equipped to absorb the future. But having made that investment, we must also see to it

    that a good proportion of the talent and skills thus created remains here to repay the investment;

    or that we can attract enough talent trained elsewhere to replace those who inevitably leave.

    That is the key challenge, and unless it is successfully met, the return to taxpayers on their

    investment in academic research will fall short.

    What should we do to ensure that the return does not fall short? The simple answer is to

    create exciting local opportunities for those who have acquired the new knowledge and skills.

    Part of that process, for example, is to provide internships so that employers and students learn

    from one another and also discover whether there might be magic in a longer relationship.

    The much tougher challenge is to create, and then grow, an adequate supply of receptors in the

    local or regional economy to absorb and stimulate the newly-minted talent. Here, the key is

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    uncompromising insistence on excellence according to global standards. Why? It is because

    research excellence initiates and sustains a virtuous circle. The production of exceptionally well-

    trained graduates at a first-class research university like Dalhousie attracts investment that is in

    search of a reliable source of talent; that investment then expands the local market for talent, thus

    creating more opportunities for graduates to stay, and others to be attracted; leading to more

    investment. This cycle of self-reinforcement is the genesis of a research-based cluster.

    I would emphasize that even those who leave should not be considered lost. Professor

    Doug Wallace, the Scientific Director of the Halifax Marine Research Institute, is returning to

    his alma mater with a global scientific reputation, and network of contacts to match, that will

    profoundly strengthen the marine research base in this community. And even those graduates

    who dont return, nevertheless constitute a Nova Scotian research diaspora in effect, a global

    network of talent that knows who we are, and what we can do. In the global village, they are

    great neighbours to have.

    We are here tonight to celebrate the value, not just of research, but of marine research

    specifically.

    If you will permit me a small personal anecdote my first contact with the substance of

    marine research was as a Grade VI student in Annapolis Royal where, for some reason, I chose

    oceanography as the subject for what today we would call a term paper. No Google or

    Wikipedia back then in 1953, but I discovered a factoid in the Encyclopedia Britannica that was

    so mind-blowing that I still recall it as though it were yesterday. The claim was that the human

    eye is most sensitive to the colour of light to which seawater is most transparent. I dont think I

    had heard of Charles Darwin at the time but I still remember the thrill of that eureka moment:

    My golly, that could only happen if our ancestors really came from the ocean. So our cousins

    are fish!.

    A funny story perhaps, but it contains the germ of a profound truth. The ocean in fact,

    there really is only one ocean -- is so important because it represents connectedness the

    connectedness that for centuries bound humanity together via exploration, trade, and sometimes

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    warfare. It was, after all, the access afforded by sea that allowed tiny Britain to found an empire;

    and it is a sea now filled with container ships that has allowed the economy to become truly

    global.

    There is a much deeper connectedness the connectedness between ocean and

    atmosphere that rules our weather, and ultimately our climate; the connectedness between sun

    and sea that makes the oceans the source of at least half the primary biological production of our

    planet, and that promises to provide new sources of clean renewable energy via waves, currents,

    thermal gradients and biomass from marine algae. (Research on the latter technology is going on

    in NRCs Institute for Marine Biosciences just a few kilometers from where we sit.)

    Another consequence of the interconnectedness mediated by the ocean is a growing

    interconnection of collective human welfare whether it concerns access to the vast potential

    reserves of ocean-based minerals; or the protection of costal zones; or the sustainability of

    marine harvesting an issue brought compellingly to world attention by Boris Worm here at

    Dalhousie. These issues are so challenging politically because the ocean is the worlds last great

    commons owned by no nation but coveted by many. That is why research and creativity in the

    field of marine policy and governance a field of particular strength at Dalhousie is so

    important.

    The value of marine research is of course a consequence of the value and importance of

    the ocean made all the more so because that importance is growing, while our knowledge of

    the ocean remains fragmentary, and thus much in need of further research.

    Why can we say that the importance of the ocean is increasing? Let me count some of the

    ways:

    We can say it is increasing because of the essential role played by ocean phenomena in the processes of climate change.

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    The importance of the ocean is increasing because of our growing demand for hydrocarbon energy today, 30% of the worlds oil supply is sourced offshore, in

    environments that are often at the limit of engineering capabilities as the BP blowout in

    the Gulf of Mexico so forcefully reminded us.

    The importance of the ocean is increasing because of the pressing need to develop new and cleaner sources of energy whether from the tides (where we in Nova Scotia are

    uniquely well-placed) or from novel ways to capture, via physical and biological

    processes, even a small fraction of the solar energy impinging daily on the worlds

    oceans.

    The importance of the ocean is increasing because of unprecedented threats to marine biodiversity arising from the growing scale of human activity, whether due to

    contamination, unsustainable harvesting, ocean acidification (from an increasing CO2

    load), or due to other processes not yet recognized. (To provide a societal perspective on

    these issues, HMRI is fortunate to have on its External Advisory Committee, Gerald

    Butts, President of the World Wildlife Fund-Canada.)

    The importance of the ocean is increasing because of a growing vulnerability to extreme marine events whether from hurricanes or tsunamis as coastal populations mushroom.

    In fact, about two-thirds of the human population lives within 100 kilometers of a

    seaco...

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