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WSDS STUDENT TAKES: Science Diplomacy and the Litter at Sea

This article is a part of ’WSDS Student Takes’, a series written by students of InsSciDE’s Warsaw Science Diplomacy School 2020.

Read all about the programme in the WSDS Chronicles or see the other Student Takes in the yellow box on the right.

Science Diplomacy and the Litter at Sea

By Andrei Polejack, Nathan McMahon, Oda Nyborg, Sneha Sinha, Zane Šime

Warsaw Science Diplomacy School (WSDS) brought science diplomacy enthusiasts together from across oceans. ’Team Ocean’, mentored by Dr. Sam Robinson was a unique blend of researchers, government officials and diplomacy practitioners. This group discussed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as framed by science diplomacy practices in a time of newly independent states at the edge of the Cold War, in which ocean technological imaginaries posed sovereignty concerns that diplomacy had to deal with. The discussions, summarized and elaborated here, transversed the dynamics of UNCLOS, modern-day ocean challenges, how science diplomacy can foster sustainable solutions and the environmental conservation efforts of the EU.

Influences of socio-technical imaginaries
UNCLOS, the global constitution for the ocean, can be understood as a case of successful science diplomacy. In the decades preceding its adoption in 1982, the potential of the ocean was seen as limitless. Technological discoveries and expectations spread through society and gave rise to a shared imagined reality based on this potential. These socio-technological imaginaries were powerful motivators, proposing the near-unlimited accessibility of cheap strategic metals, new living space, and on the darker side, new locations for nuclear silos to progress the Cold War. While the future looked bright for powerful nations, developing nations, many recently independent, feared militarisation of the deep ocean, which would surely exclude them from any potential technological benefits. Thus was born UNCLOS, granting access to peaceful imaginings to developing nations while suppressing the escalating costs of the Cold War. Today detrimental challenges to the ocean include pollution and ecosystem destruction, which served as a contemporary reference point in the team’s analyses.

Can’t be singularly addressed
A healthy and sustainable ocean is of global concern and no single country can solve the current – pressing – issues alone. Ocean currents connect across the planet and their impact on the atmosphere is well established by science. Cooperation was, and still is, deemed essential to better approach these issues. However, the nature of cooperation has to go beyond its geographical meaning to also include communication and synergies fostered between politicians or diplomats and scientists or engineers. Few politicians or diplomats understand the science or technical limitations and implications, and in counterpart, few scientists or engineers fully appreciate their society’s risks and fears. New challenges require the establishment or rethink of science advisory formats that can mix these perspectives to yield novel, socio-technical solutions. Successful cases have emerged worldwide, but the scientific advice that solved the sun-coral (Tubastrea sp.) invasion in Brazil was a singular example that became a point of discussion and inspiration in Team Ocean. Scientists – when challenged to find a practical solution to this ecological threat – supplied two potential solutions founded on the best technical expertise available, while officials weighed the options against societal values and other governmental priorities.

EU has many approaches to plastics in ocean
Considering the issue of plastic pollution, it is important not to ‘reinvent the wheel’ when attempting socio-technical solutions. The EU has various frameworks to tackle plastics in the oceans, including the EU Bioeconomy, Maritime Security, and Plastics Strategies. The European Action for Sustainability was designed with full awareness of the EU Plastics Strategy, limiting redundancy. The recently agreed EU-India Strategic Partnership: A Roadmap to 2025 stresses the mutual interest in finding innovative solutions to tackle plastic and marine litter. Last but not least, the Smart Specialisation Platform provides support to entrepreneurial and innovation initiatives aimed towards environmentally conscious materials and product packaging.

The Issue of sea pollution is for everyone
The issue of plastic pollution at sea is a concern for everyone. Is sea life safe? Does seafood contain plastics? Internationally coordinated science is key to answer nuanced questions like these, while diplomats and politicians are tasked with facilitating cooperation and acting on the scientific findings. Countries can build on existing infrastructure to promote innovative socio-technological problem-solving and solutions. Technical experts, informed by societal leaders of community risks and fears, should be empowered to lead the co-design of research projects between society and science. This is one of the key takeaways that emerged from the Team Ocean consultations at WSDS, along with a broader view of the potential benefits that new initiatives of science diplomacy present to the EU (which includes multiple UNCLOS Member States).

This article is a part of ’WSDS Student Takes’, a series of articles written by attendees of InsSciDE’s Warsaw Science Diplomacy School 2020.

All Student Takes articles:
Overview: Traversing boundaries during a virtual week in Warsaw

Team Biodiversity/Le Roux: Towards a Joint Approach for EU Science Diplomacy

Team Ocean/Robinson: Science Diplomacy and the Litter at Sea

Team Plague/Paillette coming soon!

Team Scramble for Africa/Marques coming soon!


Published 7 August 2020

WSDS Student Takes: Science Diplomacy and the Litter at Sea

Team Ocean/Robinson led by Sam Robinson of WP Environment

Authors: Zane Šime, Andrei Polejack, Sneha Sinha, Nathan McMahon, Oda Nyborg

Read all about the programme in the WSDS Chronicles

All Student Takes articles:
Overview: Traversing boundaries during a virtual week in Warsaw

Team Biodiversity/Le Roux: Towards a Joint Approach for EU Science Diplomacy

Team Ocean/Robinson: Science Diplomacy and the Litter at Sea

Team Plague/Paillette coming soon!

Team Scramble for Africa/Marques coming soon!