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Margin Notes

Canada adrift in ocean science

That, in so many words, is the conclusion of a new Council of Canadian Academies report.


A Mari Usque Ad Mare. That, of course, is the motto for Canada, “From sea to sea.” But it should really be “From sea to sea to sea,” in recognition that we are bordered by three ocean basins, not two. We also, incidentally, have the world’s longest coastline.

That’s all to say that you’d think Canada would be good at ocean science, out of necessity and self-interest. And you’d be mostly right: Canada ranks among the top countries in output and impact of ocean science papers.

However, a new report released today from the Council of Canadian Academies warns that our relative position in this area is at risk due to a lack of collaboration and coordination among all the players. What’s more, this slippage is happening at the moment that the world’s oceans are facing unprecedented pressures from climate change, ocean acidification and demands on ocean resources.

The expert panel report, Ocean Science in Canada: Meeting the Challenge, Seizing the Opportunity, was chaired by David Strangway, who, among other things, is the former president and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation and former president of the University of British Columbia. Also on the panel was Louis Fortier, a highly regarded marine scientist and professor at Université Laval, and head of ArcticNet, a Network of Centres of Excellence of Canada. The assessment was requested by the Canadian Consortium of Ocean Research Universities, a group of nine Canadian universities involved in ocean science research.

The report starts with an accounting of the current “state and capacity” of ocean science in Canada. This section has a decidedly “one the one hand … on the other hand” quality to it. For every positive element noted by the panel, it seemed to find a corresponding negative one.

Looking first at human capacity, the report noted that, despite a steady increase in undergraduate and graduate students in many fields related to ocean science from 2001 to 2009, it is “unclear whether overall trends in human capacity are positive on balance.” This is because of a serious lack of data – “a particular concern, since human capacity determines the use and productivity of all other elements of ocean science capacity.”

Canada also has a substantial – but aging – research fleet. Half of these vessels were built over 25 years ago, and “older vessels lead to more breakdowns, higher costs and operational days lost to maintenance.”

In a similar vein, the report said Canada has several world-class systems for ocean observation and monitoring. These include the 800-kilometre-long NEPTUNE cabled ocean observatory off the west coast of Vancouver Island and the Ocean Tracking Network headquartered at Dalhousie University at the other end of the country. However, the report said, “While these systems are ground-breaking and will attract leading ocean scientists from around the world, challenges exist with regard to the geographical coverage of observation and monitoring, in particular in the Arctic.”

In terms of funding ocean science, the panel again asserted that the situation is unclear due to insufficient data. It noted that total spending by funding agencies in Canada increased from 2002 to 2011, but direct funding for individual research projects has declined since 2008. Meanwhile, expenditures by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans on science activities peaked between 2006 and 2008, followed by a decline to the same level as 2002.

Finally, while Canada ranks among the top countries in output and impact of ocean science papers, the report noted frankly that this position “is at risk.” The panel used a bibliometric analysis to make an international comparison of Canada’s performance in ocean science. According to this analysis, Canada ranks 7th in the number of peer-reviewed papers and 11th in scientific impact. But (again!), it also found that ocean science “is losing ground relative to other fields … which could lead to a decline in Canada’s position in research output and impact.”

The panel also identified gaps in the “coordination and alignment” of the ocean science community in Canada. They are:

  • The vision gap: In contrast to other countries, or other disciplines in Canada, no comprehensive national strategy or vision currently exists for ocean science in Canada.
  • The coordination gap: Addressing the increasingly complex issues of ocean science requires enhanced collaboration at the local, regional, national and international levels, and across disciplines and sectors. Despite the many instances of successful collaboration in Canada, “coordination in key areas … is lacking.”
  • The information gap: Limitations in access to, and availability and comparability of, information “made it difficult to assess several categories of ocean science capacity.” This gap also makes it difficult to prioritize where investments should be made in research infrastructure.

The panel concluded that addressing these gaps is essential if Canada “is to meet the growing needs of ocean science with limited resources, and make best possible use of existing capacities to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities of ocean science.” This will require “a national effort involving the entire community of ocean scientists in Canada, as well as users of ocean science in government, the private sector and civil society.”

Altogether, it is a pretty downbeat report.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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