Public and private sectors to advance ocean observing

Until now, vital ocean observing activities that underpin human safety, marine health, blue economies and sustainable development have largely been managed by the scientific sector, and pillared on public projects. But today, private companies are stepping into the field with promising opportunities for a blue data revolution, and an alternative path for early career ocean professionals.

Our societies rely on ocean observations and services every day. Yet, the importance of the whole ocean observing value chain – from data collection to user services – is not universally recognized. This builds a barrier to growing the Ocean Enterprise.  

Not only do ocean data feed hazard warning systems, climate and weather models, and inform policy makers – they also play an increasingly important role in national economies and sustainable ocean management. Fisheries, transportation, offshore energy and tourism industries all form part of the blue economy, which is predicted to reach $3 trillion USD by 2030 (OECD, 2016). 

However, to maximise the potential of our blue economies, a step change is needed in ocean observing. “Today ocean observing activities mostly rely on public funding. This current funding model will not be sufficient to expand a sustained ocean observing system to meet the growing demands for ocean information,” says Zdenka Willis, Immediate Past President of the Marine Technology Society (MTS).

“Pulling in new participants from the private sector is key to accelerating the development of the ocean observing system across its value chain,” adds Emma Heslop, Global Ocean Observing System’s (GOOS) Acting Office Director. Fortunately, private companies are increasingly open for collaboration – and this connection has a massive potential that can benefit both sides. 

Prof. Matthew Mowlem is an excellent example of making the most out of the public-private nexus. As the principal investigator at the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) in the UK, he leads a team developing new sensors that allow monitoring of nutrients, phytoplankton, pollutants and other important variables in the marine environment. Aside from that, Prof. Mowlem also founded and is CTO for a start-up company that commercialises the high-tech sensors invented by his research team.

“The ocean observing market is not as small as sometimes thought, and adjacent markets outside of oceanography, such as water industry monitoring, can actually amplify and support scaling up of the market, making it cheaper for everybody,” says Prof. Mowlem.

Early Career Ocean Professional Dr. Sam Monk deploying a commercial version of the NOC developed sensor for nutrient monitoring in a river. Credit: Alex Beaton

Dialogues with Industry: Dismantling barriers and seizing opportunities

The recently completed Dialogues with Industry, hosted by GOOS, MTS and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), brought together representatives from new and established companies, academia, and government to discuss possibilities for increased collaboration in the future.

An official activity of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, the dialogue series aimed to dismantle existing barriers and highlight opportunities towards achieving a mature next generation global ocean observing system to meet the needs of the blue economy. With observers from over 40 countries and an especially high industry participation, it provided a one-of-a-kind space for discussions around novel ideas in ocean observing. 

Collaborative work between the public and private sectors was a universal theme, and participants acknowledged the importance of ocean data for reaching the full potential of sustainable blue economies. In addition, many highlighted the opportunities offered by new ocean observing technology, as well as the need to establish common standards, and attract new talent into the blue industry.

New technology for the blue data revolution

The Dialogues with Industry participants pointed to the oncoming blue data revolution through sensor transformations that will allow us to take a closer look into ocean biogeochemistry and marine life. 

“There’s no single sensor or sampler technology that can solve all of our problems. The future lies in finding the right combination of devices and the platforms on which they are deployed to address specific use cases,” says Dr. Christopher Scholin, President and CEO of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). 

Uncrewed underwater vehicles have rapidly become part of the observing arsenal. They will need to be continually improved to collect data for longer and longer periods of time without human intervention. Coupling these with modern sensors will allow us to effectively observe the most remote areas of the ocean. 

Such autonomous systems and other ocean observing platforms collect large amounts of data. With the blue data revolution, artificial intelligence and machine learning must play a bigger role, as currently the adoption of AI within the marine community is happening more slowly compared to the terrestrial one. AI-enabled solutions have the potential to lead to real paradigm shifts in how we observe the coasts and the open ocean.

MBARI Research Specialist Christina Preston prepares the 3G Environmental Sample Processor (3G ESP) for deployment on the long-range autonomous underwater vehicle. Credit: Todd Walsh © 2017 MBARI

Standards to level the playing field

Internationally recognized standards exist in many aspects of our daily lives – from ensuring equal calibration of thermometers in different hospitals, to ensuring food safety. The importance of establishing similar standards in the ocean observing value chain was highlighted at all four of the Dialogues with Industry.

“Having standards for obtaining data makes it easier for us to develop our data products, but also helps with the interoperability and making sure that when you do have these observations, they’re on the same playing field, and you can actually compare them across different systems together,” says Kimberly Sparling, vice president for product development at Saildrone. “It would also lower the barrier to market entry and decrease the risk for companies that are willing to make the investment in building out data products,” she adds.

While the importance of establishing international standards seems clear, having an agreement on what these standards could be remains a challenge. Luckily, it is a point of strong mutual interest from both private and public sectors. 

Alternative route for early career ocean professionals

The need for new talent to enter the private sector proves to be the biggest limiting factor for industries to develop their workforce and scale their production. The private sector can provide a wide array of rewarding career opportunities which students might not be aware of, and to raise this awareness we need stronger coordination with educational systems.

The challenge is to make the next generation aware of the opportunities in the blue economy. 

“We want students to think: ‘Oh, that’s another potential job path for me. I could do this for a living. I could work on something I really care about,’” says Clara Hulburt, Product Line Manager at Teledyne Technologies.

Students are often motivated by the potential to contribute to improved environmental or ocean outcomes, and it must be made clear this is as possible in industry as it is in academia.

Early Career Ocean Professionals at the Glider School – a reference training school in marine glider technology held annually by the Oceanic Platform of the Canary Islands (PLOCAN) Credit: PLOCAN

Takeaway message

On April 11, the key findings of the four Dialogues with Industry will be presented in a webinar. GOOS, MTS and NOAA invite all interested people to register and be the first to hear the synopsis and initial recommendations.

While the full outcomes and actionable recommendations of the series are due to be released later this year, one thing is clear: a collaboration between the public and private sectors can bring benefits to both sides across the whole ocean observing value chain. 

A change of mindset is needed in order to grow the blue economy faster, and both sectors are on the right track to work together in fully exploiting its potential as well as expanding the current Ocean Enterprise for the benefit of our societies.

“The Dialogues with Industry clearly identified the enormous interests of the public and private sector ocean observing communities in collaborating to address the rapidly growing demand for ocean information,” said NOAA Administrator Dr. Rick Spinrad. “We look forward to working with the community to now turn dialogue into action.”

Reports and recordings from each dialogue are available on the GOOS website.

The feature will be published in Environment, Coastal & Offshore (ECO) Magazine’s “Ocean Observation” issue.

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