Thursday, January 10, 2008
If California is the nation’s sea-state, the Monterey Bay area is the state’s sea capital – the historic fishing Mecca and modern-day headquarters of a host of marine enterprises.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) is the place for “far-out” ocean tech ideas, like a robot lab-in-a-can that determines the genetic codes of deep-sea microorganisms and beams the data by satellite. Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station has cornered the local research market in tuna and squid, while the Monterey Bay Aquarium is home to charismatic mega fauna such as sharks and otters. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, headquartered in downtown Monterey, governs 5,322 square miles of sprawling blue from Marin County’s Point Bonita to San Luis Obispo County’s Point Piedras Blancas. And Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, serving seven California State University campuses, specializes in aquaculture and the study of kelp and seaweed.
All those maritime minds working together have a sort of magnetic effect, drawing more marine scientists and research institutes to the area. Now, the Center for Ocean Solutions – a partnership among Stanford, the Aquarium and MBARI, kick-started by a $25 million Packard grant – is bringing them all together on a mission to reverse the sea’s downward spiral.
The center, located on Monterey’s harbor, aims to do what amounts to heresy in old-school academia: Knock down barriers to interdisciplinary research. Dissolve scientists’ fear of policy and policymakers’ fear of science. Connect the smart with the powerful. Turn ideas into realities.
In April 2005, about three dozen local ocean experts gathered on Pacific Grove’s rocky coast to brainstorm ways to better treat the litany of health problems afflicting the seas: The oceans are turning acidic, dead zones are proliferating, pollution continues unabated, species are invading, habitat is shrinking, shorelines are crumbling and fisheries are collapsing.
The institutes, along with others in the area, had a history of informal collaborations. But this was the first time they’d come up with the concept of a “super campus” for ocean research, a place for local experts and policymakers to formally collaborate.
In Hopkins’ boathouse auditorium, engineers with expertise in sediment transport bounced ideas off lawyers who know the legal ins and outs of marine reserves. Tuna experts hobnobbed with medical scholars studying how marine animals carry cholera. Together, they began to discuss the policy implications of their research. Intersecting circles and arrows crowded the chalkboard. The jumble of shapes and phrases eventually yielded a name: Center for Ocean Solutions.
Even when Ocean Solutions was just a glimmer in local scientists’ eyes, the center seemed destined for the Monterey Bay area. Home to a remarkable assembly of marine research institutes, ocean-oriented nonprofits and government agencies, the region is a natural testing ground for the unconventional mixing of science and policy.
“The Center for Ocean Solutions can’t just be a think tank,” says Stanford environmental lawyer Buzz Thompson. “It would have to be a do tank, actually moving those ideas into actions.”
Leaders of local marine institutes credit Thompson and Jeff Koseff, co-directors of Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment, with spearheading the concept. But the duo humbly insists that Ocean Solutions has been a group effort from the start. “This would not have worked if it had been one person’s idea and they just pushed it forward,” Thompson says. “With an ocean, you need multiple forms of expertise to solve problems.”
“This idea has resonated so quickly that people picked up on it,” adds Koseff, an expert in the physics and biology of the coastal sea. “This is too big an issue not to give it our best shot and not to try unconventional solutions.”
After Ocean Solutions’ chalkboard genesis, the assembled scientists migrated to the beach for beer and a barbecue – not fish, anything but fish – as the fog rolled in over Bird Rock and the sun lowered itself pinkly into the sea. Less than three years later, their vision has dawned.
Sitting in the Pacific Forum at the top floor of the MBARI headquarters in Moss Landing, Meg Caldwell is a portrait in burnt orange. Her blouse, earrings and hair match the fiery metaphors she uses to describe her vision for Ocean Solutions: a place for scientists, policy makers, lawyers, economists, historians – anyone working on anything related to the sea – to gather and collaborate, “so that our synergies can explode.”
While Caldwell’s language sparks, her composure is cool. She scrolls through a PowerPoint presentation on Ocean Solutions with a lawyer’s even tone, her words metered by the crash of waves on the shoreline below. The center will bring knowledge and power together in an attempt to create more than the sum of the parts, she explains. As is, she says, dozens of government agencies devise micro-policies governing pieces of the sea, and a wealth of marine institutes produce scattered piles of revealing data. But the long-term vision is out of focus. While various entities tackle the sea’s symptoms one by one, none has designed a comprehensive recovery plan for a gravely ill ocean.
“There’s a difference between leadership and regulatory authority,” Caldwell says. “From a policy-level point of view, we have very little leadership – very rarely confronting the full set of effects.”
If anyone knows the scope of California’s sea-governance, it’s Caldwell. As a senior lecturer at the Woods Institute and director of Stanford’s environmental law program, she’s also chaired the California Coastal Commission, served on the board of the California Coastal Conservancy, and works on the task force planning California’s marine reserve network.
Now she slips into the role of Ocean Solutions’ interim director, coordinating the partnership among Stanford’s main campus, Hopkins Marine Station, Monterey Bay Aquarium and MBARI. The hope is that more organizations will join as the center gains momentum. The Woods Institute will serve as the center’s manager – soliciting grants, hiring the permanent director and handling administrative responsibilities.
“Democracy is doomed if people keep making stupid decisions because they’re ignorant about environmental policy.”
Strategic planning is still underway, but Caldwell imagines the center will focus on marine ecosystems, the fishing industry, land-ocean interactions and the effects of climate change on the sea. It’ll connect disparate fields like ocean health and public health, host an annual “state of the ocean” forum, and offer interdisciplinary short courses and early career fellowships. Participating institutions will not only brainstorm strategies, but also commit to carrying them out together.
In essence, Ocean Solutions manifests a quiet revolution happening in academia, a shift from isolated disciplines to collaborations on complex problems that run together like water.
The ocean is the primary source of the world’s oxygen and a major regulator of its climate. The churning sea houses more animals and plants than the land. It also cycles nutrients, treats waste, and gives us shrimp cocktails. But human activities are putting all of those benefits at stake.
For more than a century, institutes in the Monterey Bay area have been cataloging the changes by sampling, probing and analyzing the sea. The first was Hopkins Marine Station, founded in 1892, just one year after its parent university. Ninety miles south of Stanford’s bucolic main campus, Hopkins sits on prime biological real estate along Pacific Grove’s coast.
Waves of marine institutes, as if pulled by the moon’s gravity, have since moved into the neighborhood.
In 1977, a group of scientists with connections to Hopkins Marine Station – including marine biologist and Stanford alum Nancy Packard Burnett – dreamed up the Monterey Bay Aquarium as a place to inspire ocean conservation. Burnett’s sister, UC-Santa Cruz-educated marine biologist Julie Packard, also got behind the idea.
The sisters made the pitch to their parents, and their father embraced the cause. David Packard – a loyal Stanford alum, Hewlett-Packard co-founder, Silicon Valley sire and former Nixon deputy defense secretary – realized how little the federal government knew about the deep sea compared with outer space. He saw a worthy investment.
With start-up money and brain power from the Packards, the aquarium opened its doors between Hopkins and Cannery Row in 1984. Three years later, David Packard founded MBARI to develop ocean exploration technology – a sort of NASA for the deep blue.
Though David Packard is now deceased, the 44-year-old, Palo Alto-based David and Lucile Packard Foundation continues to buoy much of the Monterey Bay area’s ocean research. Since 2005, the foundation has awarded more than $108 million to MBARI, more than $12 million to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation, $70,000 to Friends of Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, and more than $5 million to Big Sur Land Trust, whose acquisitions of coastal property help protect ocean resources. The foundation also has granted almost $2 million to blue activist group Oceana, more than $900,000 to the Elkhorn Slough Foundation, $75,000 to Friends of Monterey Academy of Oceanographic Science, almost $140,000 to the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation and more than $1 million to Cannery Row-based film company Sea Studios. And now, the Packard Foundation has provided $25 million in start-up funds for Ocean Solutions.
Julie Packard may share a name with the Packard Foundation, but she prefers to wear the hat of aquarium director, a post she’s held since its founding. She also sits on the MBARI board and has served on the Pew Oceans Commission. Now, she’s taking an active hand in preparing a home for Ocean Solutions.
A key trait for the center’s success is adaptive management, Packard explains. Programs should be flexible enough to respond to unpredictable changes in science and society. “We really see our role in being not so much generating the science to develop solutions,” she says, “but linking the information up with policymakers and bringing it to the next step.”
That might not sound radical, but it’s a big departure from standard academia. Colleges usually don’t teach scientists to engage in public process or economists to wrap their heads around natural science. “The system doesn’t reward interdisciplinary work,” Packard says.
Ocean Solutions, on the other hand, aims to deal in unlikely alliances, allowing students to take classes at an array of local schools – including Stanford, University of California-Santa Cruz, California State University-Monterey Bay, the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey Peninsula College and Monterey Institute of International Studies. “The object is to cut out the barriers for students to move between institutions,” Caldwell says. “We want to make sure we cast a broad net.”
That’ll require some adapting on the part of Monterey Bay’s marine institutes, each of which has its niche in the local research community. But just as estuaries flow into kelp forests, the institutes share liquid borders. Students from Hopkins and the Marine Labs have gone on to employment at MBARI, the Sanctuary and UC Santa Cruz. The MBARI board is stacked with leaders from the Aquarium, Hopkins, UCSC and NPS. MBARI shares the Marine Labs’ library and provides dock space for its research vessel.
The Sanctuary lends its ship – which pulls a “camera sled” behind it, like an aquatic Santa sleigh – to regional scientists. It also operates the Sanctuary Integrated Monitoring Network (SIMoN), which merges data from dozens of regional marine research institutes to keep a mechanical eye on marine ecosystems. The U.S. Navy’s Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center in Monterey provides MBARI with models, and MBARI lends Fleet Numerical sensors for its data collection. A research panel of local scientists meets regularly to swap thoughts and share research.
“Using the  National Ocean Conference as a catalyst, we have been using the last 10 years to act as a community,” says MBARI CEO and Standford geophysics professor Marcia McNutt. Outside her office window, seagulls mob the harbor – a good omen for fishermen, even if it means MBARI employees will need to hose off their cars. “Collectively, we are as large as the major oceanographic institutions.”
“People talk about survival of the planet. The planet’s gonna survive just fine. It’s the survival of the human race—that’s what we’re talking about here.”
No doubt, the informal collaborations have produced what McNutt calls “fabulous science and totally cool tools.” But it hasn’t slowed the deterioration of the sea. “We’ve got good ideas of how we can fix these problems, and yet we lack the wherewithal to get them into a bigger arena,” she says. “Ocean Solutions is going to be that vehicle that is going to get these good minds and good ideas out the door and into that social and economic arena where they’re going to do the most good for the most people, and in time to make a difference.”
That’s critical not only for sea experts, but for all humans, McNutt stresses. “If photosynthesis is severely curtailed, do you think you can live with half as much oxygen?” she asks pointedly. “People talk about survival of the planet. The planet’s gonna survive just fine. It’s the survival of the human race – that’s what we’re talking about here. The microbes will inherit the oceans, and they will love it. The earth will survive. But it might not be us who inherit the earth.”
Other local sea leaders are equally excited by Ocean Solutions’ potential. Hopkins Director George Somero sees the center as a breath of energy that will expand the marine research balloon, formalize existing relationships and attract funding. That’ll draw more students, he says, positioning the Monterey Bay area as the training ground for the next generation of ocean experts. “There are real implications here for how to better manage the ocean,” he says in the cramped office he shares with two standard poodles.
Just a few blocks away, in the spacious downtown building housing the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary office, Sanctuary research coordinator Andrew DeVogelaere shares Somero’s enthusiasm. “I think that this will bring in a whole new group for solving problems,” he says.
While Sanctuary administrators make policy governing the protected area, they don’t deal with the social or legal aspects of marine management. “I think that [Ocean Solutions] has things to offer there,” he says. “We can’t take on the whole world, but they can.”
DeVogelaere hits on a touchy subject for the center’s coordinators, who tiptoe on the ice of credibility as they merge science and policy. Ocean Solutions aims to mediate rather than advocate, engage in “dispassionate analysis” rather than lobbying – but it’s a fine line.
Alternately sitting, jumping up, and pacing in his office about 25 minutes’ drive up Highway 1, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories Director Kenneth Coale explains the difference. In his view, Ocean Solutions is a vehicle that can shuttle the lab’s painstakingly gathered data into the hands of people who can take action. “Policy is such a human process. It’s not informed by fact; it’s informed by opinion,” he says. “Democracy is doomed if people keep making stupid decisions because they’re ignorant about environmental policy.”
But he emphasizes that scientific credibility suffers if researchers are seen as having economic or political stakes in their research: “Scientists have always avoided the public spotlight and been reluctant to speak about public issues. We are trying to do science that will inform policy, but we’re really trying to maintain a sharp division between the two.”
Stanford’s Buzz Thompson hones the distinction: While the center will avoid advocacy, it may produce ideas that activist organizations can push into adoption. “Crucial for the success of the Center for Ocean Solutions is that it maintain a reputation for scientific objectivity,” he says.
That makes Ocean Solutions an unlikely haven for activists making emotional pleas for the sake of the sea. More likely, the center hailed as revolutionary by its admirers will involve straight-laced wonks, pencil pushers and flesh-pressers discussing the future of humanity via seminars and PowerPoint presentations.
The goal, of course, is to remain anchored in data rather than dogma. But the scientific community’s deadpan diplomacy also can have the unintended effect of misleading the public, McNutt warns. “The whole culture of science is to move instantly away from everything we agree on and focus entirely on the parts that are still in debate,” she says. “By not being very clear about the groundswell of agreement on climate change, the public was confused. We don’t want to make the same mistake with the ocean.”
The squawking of gulls in flight syncopates with the arfing of sea lions. Monterey cypresses buffer the bay winds like a line of scented sentries, and iridescent hummingbirds feed on the blossoms spilling out of flower pots.
This is Heritage Harbor, Ocean Solution’s new home on Monterey’s downtown waterfront opposite Fisherman’s Wharf. The charming cluster of buildings is already a node of conservation work: Regional offices are leased by The Nature Conservancy, Oceana, Friends of the River and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Their landlord is the Center for the Future of the Oceans, an Aquarium program that aims to educate seafood consumers and influence national ocean policy.
“We’ve been trying to build a little node of ocean conservation in Monterey that would be unparalleled, and we are succeeding in doing that,” says CFFO Director Mike Sutton. “The Center for Ocean Solutions will be one of the linchpins for that effort.”
Ocean Solutions has leased part of the bottom floor in a building the color of cooked salmon. The space, big enough to hold 12 staff members, looks onto a harbor where white-bottomed sailboats float like cooked shellfish in a gray-blue broth. The buildings along the pier display their yellow, gray, teal and beige backsides. Gulls pick their dinner from the tideline.
By the time a full-time director replaces Caldwell in the fall, the center should have two early career fellows on board and be launching its first Fisheries Institute training sessions. Within a few years, Ocean Solutions may be ready to present ecosystem-scale solutions that might be technical, social, political, or a mixture of all three.
“Our sincere hope is that we can be super-flexible and super-nimble and timely,” Caldwell says. “I can’t promise you we’ll get to the solutions on time, but if we don’t try, we end up establishing policy on an ad hoc basis.”
Central to healing the sea, Caldwell says, is a paradigm shift – a massive change in thinking that prompts people to value a healthy ocean for the life-sustaining services it provides. That means recognizing that business as usual could imperil the future livability of the planet.
“Being very, very thoughtful about any manipulations of ocean ecosystems is very, very important,” she says, the only hint of urgency a slight raise of her eyebrows. “This is a grand experiment that we’re in, like it or not.”