A broad range of research organisations supported the workshop organised by Denis Bailly and his team of the Ocean University Initiative in Brest. During two days, 5-6 November 2019, participants discussed in small groups what social sciences and humanities research can contribute to address major challenges and opportunities to implement the SDGs of Agenda 2030, with special attention to SDG14, Life under Water.

The aim? Co-create a report for the Executive Planning Group of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030). This contribution will also feed into the discussion at the Global Planning Meeting in June 2020 before the adoption of the implementation plan for the Decade by the UN General Assembly’s in November 2020.

All sessions were introduced by three impulse talks before group discussions around tables of up to eight people. Young researchers served as rapporteurs feeding back summaries of the conversations to the plenary. All sessions were visually recorded.

Picture: Visual recording of session one "Social Sciences, Ocean and the SDGs".

The initial presentations emphasised the interconnectedness of the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs). Wes Flannery of CIMAR in Belfast pointed out that marine spatial planning (MSP) was in principle inspired by blending these interdependencies. He had found, however, that the mostly technocratic approaches adopted by many governments failed to yield the expected conflict reduction because representatives of large and well organised interest groups tended to drown out all others.

Among the responses generated by the small-group conversations around the table then shared with everybody in the plenary were the following issues that should prominently figure in future research for sustainable seas: (a) drives to foster low impact activities, e.g. by putting a premium on technologies and ways of using the ocean that minimise the effect on marine and coastal ecosytems; (b) identify areas, where the greatest leverage for positive change can be achieved and concentrate resources and efforts on these leverage points; (c) do research on how to share costs and benefits more equitably to underpin consensus building; (d) do the research in participatory ways so that stakeholder groups have time to contribute to the formulation of research questions and can familiarise and interact with the process of generating new insights that can lead to innovation. This way, the domineering temptations of currently powerful interest groups could likely be at least attenuated to leave space, e.g. for small-scale fishers, men and women.

During the second session Linwood Pendleton of the Ocean Decade Executive Planning Group argued strongly to focus any research proposals on the value of further data collection and interpretation on the sustainable development goal of the Research Decade and prioritise gap areas. It was also important to keep in mind that the research was supposed to be transformative and supportive of positive policy change and the what and how to bring about the change.

That would also have to go beyond the current practice of some citizen science and be taken to the next level. That dovetailed very well with the earlier discussions had already. It also put into focus how research results can be presented in ways that make the use easier for decision makers at various levels.

In the introduction to the third session, Carina Keskitalo of the EU group of seven chief science advisers to the European Commission explained how some of the science-policy nexus worked in practice: either through Commissioners asking questions for which the science advisers sought answers by consulting sciences academies and other experts or by producing benchmark studies on major political themes, such as 'Food from the Ocean'.

Inter- and transdisciplinarity to address multi-layered and often complex problems in relation to using the ocean and coastal zones was the focus of the fourth workshop session. This has been demanded and written about since a few decades, but remains difficult to practise, especially as the sciences - both natural and social - split up into more and more disciplines, each trying to affirm their territory of competency. On the other hand mutual influencing and broader framing of research is naturally on the increase.

Iterative approaches, some would say 'muddling through' are gaining currency as a way to address such complexity in an attempt to minise risk from one-off forced grand decisions.

Based on Mundus maris and other experiences it was recognised that the social sciences had a role to play in shortening the times between new findings from research and their uptake in society. The precautionary principle should find much more application than it currently does with widespread high-risk technologies. The European Environment Agency report on "Late lessons from early warnings: Science, precaution, innovation" was highly recommended reading in this context.

The remainder of the workshop was focused on how to make meaningful contributions to the formulation of the research agenda of the Decade through the workshop report, participation in regional consultations and other constructive ways to engage. Intensifying efforts towards greater ocean literacy, better awareness of the cultural heritage associated with the ocean and participating in the review mechanism of the UN Decade also met with consensus.

Perhaps the most important input from our side was to argue for the multiplication of experimental work testing alternatives at a low-risk, smaller scale to make positive change possible in practice. Without testing what can work and what will not, policies tend to preserve the status quo - with all the negative effects of not meeting either the climate goals or SDG14 and Agenda 2030 as a whole. Trying alternatives out can build the confidence in feasibility or need for further adjustments and greater creativity in how we approach the urgently needed transitions to more sustainable living with the ocean.

Because of the short planning time there were hardly any participants from Asia, Africa and Latin America, a weakness that will need to be compensated for hopefully in the regional preparatory conferences also providing inputs into the agenda setting process around the six broad areas already defined at the first UNESCO Planning Meeting.

Text and pictures are by CE Nauen who participated for Mundus maris.