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Q&A with Guest Editor Nancy Knowlton

We speak to Nancy Knowlton, Guest Editor of the PLOS Biology Collection: “Ocean solutions for a sustainable, healthy and inclusive future” about her career in ocean research and her vision for the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.

What first drew you to study ocean science?

I think my first interest in ocean science stemmed from the fact that I spent a lot of summers by the ocean, visiting my grandparents. But what really inspired me to properly study ocean science was a job I had after I graduated from college with a woman named Ruth Turner. She was the first woman to go down in the deep sea submersible Alvin and she was the one who inspired me to learn to scuba dive, and to go on to be a marine biologist.

What did the field look like when you started out, and what has changed?

When I first started out, I think that people chose research questions based on their curiosity — and often the more obscure and arcane, the better! What’s changed is the situation with our planet and the ocean, with respect to the impact of human activities, so I think that now most people have a focus on solving the problems around us today, rather than choosing any question based on what’s “cool” to answer.

As we work towards ocean sustainability, what challenges do we face today?

We have a lot of challenges facing ocean sustainability. We don’t have all the solutions, but we have a lot of them — we know how things work; we know what we have to do. So the biggest challenges in some ways are implementing and scaling up solutions. There are lots of things that are working at small scale or in a limited number of places, and we really need to have them work at massive scale and in many places around the world. Sometimes that involves political and financial will, and sometimes we need the social sciences side to spread successes beyond initial trial examples. There are also some things that we need to learn to do more effectively. For example, we haven’t really figured out how to tap into the energy in the oceans and implement ocean-based renewable energy economically and at large scale, and plastic pollution is a big problem for which we still don’t have a science-based solution. But for a lot of things, we know what to do — we just need to do it!

What potential solutions — whether new and untested, or piloted and ready-to-scale — excite you in the field?

The potential solutions that excite me the most are those based on very sophisticated science which can now be deployed relatively cheaply. For example, we have all sorts of really interesting ocean solutions associated with big data and using genetics and genomics. A lot of them are still in the lab/small-scale phase, but I think ten years from now they’ll be much more powerful and ready to deploy. We need these methods for a lot of areas. We’re getting pretty good at monitoring the ocean with genetic methods, but “assisted evolution”, as it’s sometimes called, is still more of a small-scale laboratory process — and that, I think, will change a lot in the next ten years.

What is your vision for the UN Ocean Decade?

My vision for the UN Ocean Decade is that it succeeds — in that we have a healthier ocean and an ocean where the benefits go to people that have traditionally been excluded. Unlike many previous UN Decades for research, this is research for sustainable development. That’s a big deal and very new and important, because the benefits of a healthy ocean are currently so unevenly distributed around the world.

Tell us about efforts to achieve justice, equity and early career researcher involvement in ocean science?

I think one of the things that has changed the most in ocean research is a focus on groups of people that have not traditionally been at the table — certainly not at the head of the table — when it comes to ocean research. This involves early career scientists, but also indigenous people, local communities and people who for economic, racial or other reasons have typically been made to not feel welcome in the research community. These efforts are going on in all sorts of different ways, at individual universities, non-governmental and governmental organizations. There’s now much more attention and focus on this across the board, and for that reason I think we’ll see a lot of progress on this over the next ten years.

What do you hope the field of ocean science will look like in the future?

The field of ocean science will look different in the future, for sure! I think eventually we will solve some of these current problems; things will start getting better in the future. That will allow us to step back and think a little more about a wider spectrum of questions. If you’re trying to address a near-term emergency, your scientific expertise winds up being in a very limited arena. I’m hoping that by 2050, some of these urgent problems will be figured out and the ocean will be healthier, so we can go back to a greater balance between very applied research, and blue sky — or blue ocean, if you will — research, where we don’t know exactly what it will be used for in future.

Photograph of Nancy Knowlton

Nancy Knowlton is the former Sant Chair for Marine Science at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and a scientific leader of the Census of Marine Life. @SeaCitizens

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