Why, what, and how: the new ICES Science Plan

In support of the newly launched Strategic Plan, ICES Science Committee, the main scientific body in the organization, coordinated development of an associated science plan, “Marine ecosystem and sustainability science for the 2020s and beyond”.
Published: 15 January 2019

We spoke to Simon Jennings, chair of ICES Science Committee (SCICOM), to find out more.​

Why a science plan?

ICES vision is to be a world-leading marine science organization. For us to effectively meet societal needs for impartial evidence on the state and sustainable use of the seas and oceans, we need to facilitate and support relevant science. This plan highlights the science priorities our community will address. The knowledge we generate when tackling these priorities will support advice on the state of the seas and on meeting conservation, management, and sustainability goals.

As more than 1500 scientists participate in our expert groups every year, the plan ensures their efforts are coordinated and focused, effectively supporting the needs of member countries and the marine science and management community more widely. The scope, scale, and impact of our science programme as a whole will be greater than the sum of the parts, and return greater benefits to the contributors. In addition, the plan will steer the scientific direction of our conferences, and training activities.

What are the main features of the science plan?

The plan describes ICES scientific priorities and a pathway to achieve them. The science we'll be doing in coming years is grouped into seven interrelated priority areas, each with an objective and purpose. These cover ecosystem science, impacts of human activities, observation and exploration, emerging techniques and technologies, seafood production, conservation and management science, and sea and society.

The plan lays out the balance between discovery and application of science. Parts of our community work at the frontiers of knowledge, making discoveries, developing new technologies, and shaping the future marine science agenda; others work collectively on more mature science topics, generating thorough, reproducible, and transparent advances that provide the credibility, salience, and legitimacy needed to ensure real-world impact.

It also describes supporting tasks that increase the visibility and impact of ICES science. These include the provision of a rewarding and efficient working environment, engaging new scientists, increasing training and networking opportunities, and strengthening our collaborations with regional and global partners.

Where do the ideas come from?

We started an inclusive and consultative process in early 2017. This drew on expertise throughout the ICES community, a review of scientific priorities of member countries, and a review of national and international policy drivers and science opportunities for ICES.

It has been quite a challenge to create something with a clear purpose and priorities without excluding any of the great ideas coming from the community. We certainly didn't want a plan that was just a sum of everything “marine" with no clear direction. After many in-depth discussions we hope we have struck a good balance: by including priorities supporting ICES Strategic Plan as well as topics that allow us to support innovation in areas like machine learning, acoustic, and molecular methods.

So does the new plan represent a sea change for ICES?

At the organizational level, no. The majority of the science will still be done to advance understanding of marine ecosystems and the services they provide. And this science will continue to underpin ICES capacity to provide authoritative and impartial insight into the state and sustainable use of the seas and oceans.

But, of course, the world is changing. We know only too well that there are a wider range of pressures, states, and links between them to consider when describing marine ecosystems and the effects of humans and the environment. We also know that managers and society are actively seeking credible, salient, and legitimate evidence to help them understand and respond to a broader range of risks and opportunities. As ICES, we will respond to these changes, and plan ahead to address expected future changes, by increasing the scope of our science and the range of scientists we engage. Many of our existing products  are ideal for communicating the results of our efforts — the fisheries and ecosystem overviews, integrated ecosystem assessments, published series,  conferences,  and training courses.

Subjects that will become more prominent in coming years include aquaculture, economics, and new techniques and technologies. We have already increased our focus on these areas, having recently founded additional aquaculture expert groups and an economics expert group, for example.

For how long will ICES follow this science plan?

This will guide our science from 2019 to 2024 but is expected to support development of our science and advice into the late 2020s and beyond. This is especially true of the discovery science, where pathways to application and impact are expected to span a decade or more. Thus, we have to prepare now to address challenges and questions of the future.

Science evolves with discovery, the build-up of knowledge, and successfully challenging existing paradigms so we are keen that the plan doesn't have a fossilising effect. For this reason, we will ensure expert groups — as core contributors to ICES science and advice — have flexibility to innovate and explore new topics. We'll do this by providing expert groups with opportunities to propose modifications to their terms of reference, by actively seeking recommendations from the groups, and through continual review of the overall portfolio and direction of groups.

Do we really need more science?

You can likely predict this answer coming from a scientist, but in my view the need for marine science is greater than ever owing to new and evolving uses of the sea and the growing complexity of the measures needed to incentivise and regulate human activities.

More and more visible science, and advice, is needed to counter misunderstandings about the state and use of the sea,  and support steps to meet conservation, management and sustainability goals, given that many of the messages currently reaching society confound evidence with hearsay, ideology, and belief.

And of course, scientific innovation, discovery, and application will continue to play an essential role in identifying resources for sustainable use and protection, increasing the scope and efficiency of monitoring, sustaining safe and sufficient seafood supplies and identifying options to help managers set and meet objectives — among many other things.

Will ICES science be excellent?

Science excellence has many dimensions but, yes, ICES will strive to achieve excellence in areas relevant to its vision and mission.

We will consider our science excellent if it substantially and effectively advances and shapes understanding of marine ecosystems and the services they provide, and underpins sought-after and influential advice on state and use of the sea that brings benefits to society. To achieve these impacts we will also need to aspire to excellence in the transparency of our scientific methods and working processes, in the impartiality of the assessment of evidence by scientists in our expert groups, and in the reproducibility, credibility and legitimacy of our science in general.

Steps towards excellence in our science will be facilitated and informed by ongoing development of our data and advisory services and the introduction of repeatable methods of working, such as the transparent assessment framework.  

Much of the science plan focuses on what will be done, but how will the science be done?

This is an important topic that goes beyond the mechanics of the implementation plan. Societal understanding of science and trust in its objectivity is often compromised by blurred relationships between science, belief, and advocacy. In a period when these debates are played out very publicly, I hope we can continue to conduct our science in ways that ensure ICES is seen as an impartial knowledge provider. For the ICES community, this means that some of the “how" involves adopting excellent working practices, as defined above, but also working with our networks to inform and reassure users and society about ICES approaches to science and our ways of working.

Who do you think will read the plan?

The intended audience is the marine science community in ICES countries and beyond. Indeed, many of this audience helped to create the plan. We hope they can use it to link their science to ICES science, add value to their own science, and to place it within the context of broader efforts to meet societal needs for impartial evidence on the state and sustainable use of the seas and oceans.

Looking at the priorities, you'll see that ICES will need to draw on skills from outside our existing community in coming years. We hope people reading the plan will share ICES priorities with their wider networks and encourage them to engage with our expert groups.

We also hope the plan will be read by — and resonate with and support — managers, industry, funding agencies, governments, and those inter-governmental and non-governmental organisations committed to advancing marine science, conservation and management.

Finally, we hope the expert groups will refer to the plan on a regular basis! With the help of expert group chairs all the topics  in the science priorities will be linked to their terms of reference in coming years.

Any final thoughts?

Our science plan is ambitious. It is a community effort and built largely from the bottom-up. For this reason, I am optimistic that it will be influential.

I believe we have an opportunity to substantially advance and shape understanding of marine ecosystems and the services they provide and to underpin a wider range of credible and legitimate advice on the state and sustainable use of the sea.

ICES Science Committee would be very pleased to receive feedback on the science plan and to answer any further questions about it.

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ICES new Science Plan, “Marine ecosystem and sustainability science for he 2020s and beyond”.

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Why, what, and how: the new ICES Science Plan

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