Comprehensive connection: Ocean Frontier Institute providing critical mass to tackle larger problems
Dr. Paul Snelgrove is hoping the new Ocean Frontier Institute (OFI) will help Memorial solve a historical challenge.
As interim associate director of the OFI, and professor of biology and ocean sciences at Memorial, he says that while the university is well-known for its outstanding scientific and applied strength in oceans research, the challenge has often been in bringing all of the pieces together.
“We have excellent ocean science activity at this university — we have many people in many different departments doing great research, but there hasn’t been a mechanism to link them together,” said Dr. Snelgrove. “That leaves a lot of unanswered questions in terms of how these processes intersect. There have been instances where people at Memorial find each other and collaborate, but there hasn’t been an organized framework to ensure that happens. The OFI can actually provide that.”
Divided into a series of interlinked modules, with each addressing a particular problem in the ocean, the Ocean Frontier Institute encompasses two of Dr. Snelgrove’s own areas of interest and expertise.
“One of the pieces I’m involved in is ocean indicators,” he said. “We know that ecosystems are changing and we are trying to develop strategies to ensure their sustainability in the long term, but that raises two questions. One is, how can we know how they are changing? This involves developing different measures of those changes. The second question is, if we try to do something about negative changes, for example close an area as a marine protected area (MPA) or another related strategy, is that closure actually doing any good and how do you measure that in some objective way?”
Dr. Snelgrove is also involved in a module that investigates the utility of marine protected areas and how to make them most effective.
“This raises the questions of where should you put MPAs, how big should they be and do they need to be able to move in the future or should they be static,” he said. “That gets into a whole variety of issues, not just natural science, but also social science and governance. So, it really is an interdisciplinary piece.
“All these components connect, and yet we often don’t connect them because we can only cover so much ground ourselves,” he added. “So bringing everyone together increases the likelihood that we can make those connections and as a result, really get a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of what’s going on.”
With Dalhousie University, the University of Prince Edward Island and Memorial coming together in an historic partnership to form the Ocean Frontier Institute, each bringing their individual strengths in atmospheric science, aquaculture and social science to the table, it means the universities can now compete at a higher level.
“The large universities in Canada have the critical mass to put together big initiatives to tackle a major problem,” said Dr. Snelgrove. “I would say individually Dal, UPEI and Memorial often don’t, because we’re just not big enough. But together we have enough people to make it happen. These problems are so complex and challenging, I think we really need a unified ocean sciences research community in Atlantic Canada to work together to resolve big questions in effective ways.”
The long-term goal, in addition to trying to resolve some of these issues, is that the Ocean Frontier Institute will have a greater lifespan than the seven years for which the initiative is currently funded.
“I hope that people will become engaged in this process and we can have a truly multidisciplinary and integrated team that works really well together to attract all sorts of diverse funding while tackling various problems,” said Dr. Snelgrove. “A lot of people involved in the OFI are already involved in large international projects, but this is an opportunity to extend those projects and start to connect them together. In the end, the degree of leveraging going on will be tremendous and I think the benefits for research will also be tremendous.”
Faculty won’t be the only ones to benefit from the new institute. A large part of Memorial’s Ocean Frontier Institute budget will go towards creating an anticipated additional 147 positions for graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, with others expected to be attracted to the university because of its involvement in such a bold and large initiative — potentially bringing their own funding.
“The students themselves will benefit from the interactions with a much broader breadth of researchers than they would otherwise and not just from the three universities,” said Dr. Snelgrove. “We’re also partnering with eight international research institutions, four of which are among the top five ocean institutes in the world. These truly are the people right at the leading-edge, worldwide. They are the best of the best.
“The federal government has also placed climate change and ocean conservation strategies at the forefront of Canadian priorities right now,” he added. “Students want to save the world, and here’s a chance where theye can actually do something that could influence policy. That’s something that’s not common in many research projects.”
The Ocean Frontier Institute (OFI) is an historic partnership between Dalhousie University, Memorial University of Newfoundland and the University of Prince Edward Island. Created through a nearly $100-million federal investment, the OFI will focus on solutions for safe and sustainable ocean development. Through its unique partnership with its research partners, Memorial will lead breakthroughs in four key areas: sustainable fisheries; sustainable aquaculture; marine safety; and ocean data and technology. Learn more about the OFI here.