Advancing, not assuming, a role for ICES science

​Simon Jennings, chair of the Science Committee, and Mark Dickey-Collas, chair of the Advisory Committee, highlight how the conduct, profile, and presentation of ICES Science Plan will influence its credibility, legitimacy, and impact.
Published: 23 January 2019

The new ICES Science Plan “Marine ecosystem and sustainability science for the 2020s and beyond" describes ICES scientific priorities and a pathway to achieve them. Implementation of the plan is expected to generate ecosystem and sustainability science with a high and beneficial impact on society. The scale of impact depends not only on what we do but on the extent to which parts of society are receptive to ICES science and associated advice, and how ICES science is viewed in relation to other sources of evidence and perspectives.

Science, society, and the sea

Expectations that the seas and oceans will meet the future needs of society have never been so high, and the range and intensity of human pressures affecting them have never been so great. Society looks to the oceans to provide energy and to feed people, as a source of minerals and chemicals, and to enable trade, recreation, and tourism.

Society also recognizes the oceans' role in regulating climate and supporting biodiversity and emphasizes conserving marine seascapes, habitats, and species. This broad set of aspirations, despite many trade-offs, has been built into most of our international and national policies and treaties in the arena of sustainable marine development and conservation. Divergent narratives can follow from these broad aspirations; one based on expectations that the oceans are the solution for providing power and feeding people (albeit sustainably) and the other based on the poor status of the oceans, leading to calls for more protection. Perhaps more than ever in recent history, the debate between people and groups with different views about the use and conservation of the sea has become polarized.

Every step towards greater use or greater protection creates trade-offs, often catalyzing vociferous debate. This challenges us to search for solutions and make the best of uneasy compromises. It is positive that more sectors of society are engaging in the debate on the management of activities that use and impact the sea. But it is challenging to see and understand the role of science in this new era of engagement. Some decisions are based primarily on perspective or belief and are minimally informed by credible science. And the boundaries within which science is used, when it is used, can be strongly constrained by the scope of questions asked. While science is not the only source of information in complex societal decision making, all those responsible for making decisions need to appreciate that everything dubbed “science” may not be developed or reviewed in the same way. We need to be aware of what scientific evidence can and cannot bring to decision-making and the consequences of following or not following such evidence.

Advocating for science

Societal understanding of science and belief in its objectivity is often compromised by blurred relationships between science and advocacy, as well as the weak distinctions between evidence and belief in many media reports and the chatter on social media on the state and uses of the sea. When evidence and opinion intermingle, it is challenging to see and to characterize the role of science as a systematic evidence-based approach that serves to separate evidence from hearsay, ideology, and belief. Witness, just in relation to seafood production for example, conflicting narratives about the sustainability and impact of fishing gears, fisheries certification, the role of protected areas, the status of fish stocks, and the future production potential and environmental sustainability of aquaculture. The ways in which scientists conduct their work can also accentuate confusion about the role of science. Many are aware, and often actively taught, that simple messages and stories have more impact than nuanced exploration of complex issues. Thus, career development, publication, and funding can depend on translating a small and perhaps uncertain step in the development of knowledge into a compelling stand-alone story; the promulgation of which may well be at odds with expectations of objectivity.

It is unrealistic to expect that science can ever be completely value-free, especially when the direction of science and the questions asked are often shaped by feedback from society. These mingled messages about the role of science mean that our community will have to work continuously to inform and reassure users and society about the benefits of our approaches to science and ourways of working, as well as what science can and cannot do to support decision-making. Through our values and actions, ICES scientific community also need to show that we adopt a systematic approach to the conducting and reporting of science, that clearly separates evidence from hearsay, ideology, and belief. Thus, as our community tackles the priorities outlined in the new science plan, the ways in which we conduct our science will be as important as the topics we address and discoveries we make.

Commited to advancing science

Science is at the heart of ICES commitment to advance understanding marine ecosystems and the services they provide, and our commitment to employ this knowledge to generate state-of-the-art advice to meet conservation, management, and sustainability goals. The need for science to inform is greater than ever owing to the new and evolving uses of the sea and an associated increase in the layers and complexity of the measures needed to incentivise and regulate human activities.

As a result, there are a wider range of pressures, states, and links between them to consider when characterizing marine ecosystems and the effects of humans and the environment; and the broader range of questions about risks and opportunities. Furthering understanding of marine ecosystems will be business as usual for many ICES scientists but ensuring the impact of this work depends on effectively sharing, building on, and applying this knowledge by highlighting its rigour and utility, both within, and beyond, our international network. Some routes to achieve this are provided by ICES fisheries and ecosystem overviews, the developing integrated ecosystem assessments, and by our regular publications series, conferences, and training courses.


So why can ICES science make a special contribution to current debates about status, use, and conservation of the seas and oceans? We have two great strengths to build on and to emphasise.

First, the strength of an expert group system that ensures our science represents consensus achieved by scientists with a range of expertize from many national and institutional backgrounds. The resulting science has long contributed to impartial advice on human activities affecting and affected by marine ecosystems and informed society about their state and use. The expert group system helps assure both credibility of the methods and approaches and the legitimacy of the knowledge shared with requesters and society.

The expert group system directly addresses concerns around single voices dominating the scientific discourse, and has the benefit of increasing legitimacy by engaging many of the nations that are likely to be influenced by the science being generated. The cordial but challenge-based culture in expert groups also helps to minimize the risk of merging evidence and opinion and tends to lead to a more realistic analysis of the significance of any step in knowledge development and its associated uncertainties.

Second, the use of our regional expertize. Analyses intended to have an applied impact on regional management and policy need significant and effective regional engagement. This is something that ICES is well placed to provide. Analyses based on regional engagement have greater credibility and legitimacy in real world decision-making because they are co-created by scientists with regional expertize, often with expert knowledge of the management systems and stakeholders from those the regions. Going forward, there is a significant opportunity for ICES to strongly promote the importance of the credibility and legitimacy that result from strong regional cooperation, as well as the value of the application of our regional science as a source of evidence in global state of the environment reporting.

The focus on engaging a broad range of regional expertize in generating our science and advice addresses concerns about the low credibility and legitimacy of analyses conducted by distant and isolated individuals or small groups working on the status of, and management solutions for, marine systems. While remote scientists may deliver important insights when they have access to technologies, techniques, and data that are not available regionally, their analyses come with a high risk of missing regional nuance, data limitations, and relevant knowledge of governance or management systems.

Taking responsibility for our science

ICES has thus far responded to the challenges of advancing ecosystem understanding and reconciling use and conservation of the sea by leading, fostering, and facilitating scientific collaborations, exploration, and monitoring programmes that span national and political boundaries, and by developing and sharing scientific knowledge and evidence internationally. Substantial progress has been made making our data findable and interoperable, thus improving the transparency and repeatability of ICES science and advice. There is remarkable capacity in our system for scientists with different types of expertise to look at the evidence and reach consensus, and this is something we should cherish. But, as ICES scientists, and given the challenges to science and marine systems, we need to take more responsibility than ever for advocating standards in our discipline and explaining the benefits of how we work. The role of science must be advanced, not assumed. We will need to express continuously and effectively that our role as an impartial knowledge provider is to separate hearsay, ideology, or beliefs from differing but accurate interpretations of the same evidence.

As we implement the new science plan, we should strive not only to generate the new ecosystem and sustainability science with a high and beneficial impact on society but also to show that our scientific debate is constructive, based on systematic analysis and synthesis of evidence that contributes to a better societal outcome. We should also highlight the breath of international participation in our expert groups, the unique legitimacy of advice and promote strongly the benefits of science and associated advice, which can be generated through strong and enduring regional cooperation.









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Advancing, not assuming, a role for ICES science

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