Blog Post

Spotlight on: Priority Questions for Ocean Science

“How inappropriate to call this planet Earth, when clearly it is Ocean.” – Arthur C. Clarke

Seventy per cent of our planet is covered by ocean, yet it remains largely unexplored and poorly understood. It’s not easy to observe and collect data on such a large region, especially when it can be so inhospitable to us. With so much ocean to explore, and so many unanswered questions, it can be challenging for researchers and research funders to know where to invest limited time and resources.

The CCA’s recent workshop report, 40 Priority Research Questions for Ocean Science in Canada was a priority-setting exercise to identify research questions that, if answered, would have the greatest impact on addressing future opportunities and challenges relating to ocean science in Canada. The CCA used a transparent, collaborative, and democratic process, ensuring that the results are not only representative of ocean science producers in Canada, but also relevant to users of ocean science, such as policy and decision makers. This innovative approach allowed for the collective input from many experts to help focus and direct the collection of evidence at a stage prior to the full assessment, now underway. It was an interesting and exciting learning experience for the CCA to gather the insights of experts before diving into the full assessment.

The process began with an online survey to collect candidate research questions from ocean researchers across Canada. This provided a list of over 600 research questions to start from, which was organized to group overlapping and related questions together. Each question also had to meet a set of criteria described in the survey, to ensure appropriate and relevant research questions. A round of voting allowed some preliminary sorting of questions, but the final list was developed over a day and a half of intense discussion during a workshop with a core group of 22 experts from across Canada.

The core group represented a range of ocean science disciplines, from physical and biological oceanography, biogeochemistry, management and governance, and even national security. These experts discussed each question, shared accumulated knowledge, and spoke to the relative priorities of each candidate research question.

Having representatives from universities, the private sector, government researchers, and policy-makers working together helped shape many of the discussions in a more holistic way than could ever be achieved without such a diverse and dedicated group of experts. Many workshop participants remarked on how much they had learned throughout the process, having shared a considerable amount of collective expertise with each other.

Once the final list of 40 questions was agreed upon, it became apparent that most were multidisciplinary in scope, and so they were instead grouped into themes based on broad research approaches: improving fundamental scientific understanding; monitoring, data, and information management; understanding impacts of human activities; and informing management and governance.

Similar priority-setting exercises have been used to identify priority research questions in fields such as conservation biology in Canada and the US, policy to support conservation in the UK, and global agriculture. Unlike previous priority-setting exercises, however, this one will inform an assessment of Canada’s needs and capacities to answer the priority questions identified through this collaborative process.

Finally, although Canada is surrounded by three oceans, all workshop participants agreed that ocean science in Canada cannot afford to limit its scope to our own “backyard.” Ocean science has become increasingly international and multidisciplinary in nature, with large-scale projects, networks, and ambitious research programs being mobilized to answer complex questions about the world’s oceans. This is reflected in the priority research questions, and will shape the kinds of capacity, and strategic collaborations that will maintain Canada’s legacy of excellence in ocean science.

Jonathan Whiteley is a researcher at the Council of Canadian Academies who has recently completed his PhD in biodiversity science at McGill University.