The Value Of Marine Research

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Dr. Peter J. Nicholson's keynote address to the Dalhousie Oceans Week Gala Dinner in Halifax, Nova Scotia on June 2, 2011.







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    2 June, 2011


    Let me begin with thanks to Tom Traves and Martha Crago for granting me the honour of

    this privileged platform on the occasion of Dalhousie Oceans Week as we celebrate

    accomplishments past and look forward to opportunities that are brighter than ever.

    My subject this evening is the value of marine research. You may be surprised that there

    should be any question as to the value of marine research, especially since earlier today the

    Halifax Marine Research Institute (HMRI) was formally launched. You could be forgiven for

    thinking that the value inherent in the new Institutes mission must already have been well

    understood and accepted. And thats true. The value of marine research is certainly understood

    by the insiders in the academic world; and in government departments that have a marine

    mandate; and in Nova Scotias burgeoning oceans-related industries. But the fact remains that

    the support of marine research relies primarily on public funds, the supply of which will always

    be limited, and the competition for which has become fiercer than ever. So those who already

    believe in the value of marine research as clearly I do are nevertheless challenged to make a

    case for support that is compelling to the people of Nova Scotia, and indeed of Canada.

    I can think of no better way to begin making that case than with the words of Robert

    Gagosian, the former President of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who, in an article

    entitled The Mars Beneath the Waves, observed that marine research seeks to understand the

    water wilderness that covers most of our planet; which generates most of the oxygen on Earth;

    controls our climate and makes Earth habitable. He went on to describe oceanographers as

    space explorers who get wet. Both go where no one has gone before. Both seek to understand

    nature and spin off technologies and discoveries that benefit society. Both get most of their

    support from public funds. The difference, he said, is that marine researchers work where

    they live on a planet whose surface is more than 70 per cent water, which is the wellspring of

    our survival.

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    That puts it pretty succinctly. And in that tradition, we are exceptionally fortunate to

    have as a member of the External Advisory Committee of the Halifax Marine Research Institute,

    Dr. Susan Avery, a successor of Robert Gagosian as head of Woods Hole.

    The logic of my argument this evening proceeds from the abstract and quasi-

    philosophical to the very concrete, pragmatic and local.

    I will begin with some observations on the value of research generally, since much of the value of marine research is embedded in this larger context.

    I will then provide some examples to illustrate the particular, and growing, importance of marine research and the practical benefits to which this leads.

    The story to that point is global and generic. But what does it mean for Halifax, for Nova Scotia, for Atlantic Canada? My theme in this regard will be the need to build on

    strengths, and surely the oceans domain is a strength of this city, this province and this

    entire region. I will make the case for an intense focus on our marine strengths, both

    extant and potential, and by implication, the case against a strategy so often implicit in

    Canada of trying to be all things to all people, spreading our resources too thin to have

    real impact.

    Finally, I want to draw it all together in the context of the Halifax Marine Research Institute, whose inauguration we celebrate today.

    What is the value of research a term I will take to mean the organized pursuit of new

    understanding. Why should a society allocate its collective resources to support such a pursuit?

    I dont believe the answer is quite as obvious as it may first appear.

    I agree that the answer may be pretty clear if the research is undertaken in furtherance of

    a well-defined mission, the primary benefit of which can be captured by whoever is providing

    the support. That is of course why many businesses perform their own research and

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    development. It is also what motivates a lot of the work of public labs like the Bedford Institute

    and the NRCs Institute for Marine Biosciences.

    But a great deal of public funding amounting to billions of dollars each year in Canada

    is allocated in support of research that is, by and large, motivated by pure curiosity. Such

    research is of course not random or aimless. It exists within an intellectual context and seeks to

    advance the frontier of understanding in that context. But this curiosity-driven investigation

    which is the staple of research in universities is distinguished by its openness. Both its ethics

    and its practices are built on the principle of sharing of collaboration and open publication.

    I am reminded in this regard of a candid remark by the CEO of a major US aerospace

    firm regarding the stark difference in motivation between academic research and the R&D

    carried out inside his company. In the university world, he said, its publish or perish; but in

    my world, its publish and perish! Sharing our competitive secrets is the last thing we intend to


    Why should relatively small jurisdictions like Nova Scotia, or even Canada, devote

    scarce taxpayer resources to support curiosity-driven research, when the content of that research

    by virtue of the principle of openness and sharing quickly flows beyond our boundaries and

    becomes, in effect, a global resource; part of humanitys intellectual commons? Why not simply

    skimp on the investment and be a free-rider? Or at least, why not direct the publics investment

    in research much more toward the applied end of the R & D continuum where the payoff is

    more tangible, immediate and proprietary? The fact that we are seeing increasing pressure from

    governments to do just that, means that the answer is not entirely obvious.

    This issue is this when taxpayers invest, they expect and deserve a payoff. And while

    adding to the collective knowledge of mankind is surely a noble purpose and an incredibly

    powerful motivator for the individual researcher it isnt a great business proposition for

    harried taxpayers here at home. They understandably want to see the kind of benefits they can

    touch right in their own backyard hence the vogue of promoting the direct commercialization

    of research. And while immediate commercial payoff is great when it happens, it should not be

    the principal mission of academic research.

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    What, then, is the payoff within a particular jurisdiction think Nova Scotia or Canada

    from that jurisdictions support of curiosity-driven research? The payoff, overwhelmingly, is the

    production of human capital, by which I mean the highly-trained students who, whether they

    end up in business, government or other walks of life, must be counted on to apply, throughout

    their careers, the leading-edge skills and understanding acquired during the apprenticeship of

    their student days.

    And how, you may ask, is this linked to the funding of academic research? The answer is

    simply that the basic research being performed in universities today the concepts and

    techniques of which are imparted to students, primarily at the graduate level is the foundation

    of the practical, applied knowledge of tomorrow. History has shown repeatedly that what may

    now seem arcane and esoteric gives rise to the industries and wealth of the future. Only rarely

    are those industries founded by the professors. The notorious difficulty of directly

    commercializing university research is evidence of that. The task instead falls primarily to their

    students. But without the professors pushing back the boundaries of our understanding and

    instilling that new understanding in successive generations of students enterprise stagnates and

    progress would soon cease.

    So we invest, as a society, in curiosity-driven research to manufacture human capital

    that is equipped to absorb the future. But having made that investment, we must also see to it

    that a good proportion of the talent and skills thus created remains here to repay the investment;

    or that we can attract enough talent trained elsewhere to replace those who inevitably leave.

    That is the key challenge, and unless it is successfully met, the return to taxpayers on their

    investment in academic research will fall short.

    What should we do to ensure that the return does not fall short? The simple answer is to

    create exciting local opportunities for those who have acquired the new knowledge and skills.

    Part of that process, for example, is to provide internships so that employers and students learn

    from one another and also discover whether there might be magic in a longer relationship.

    The much tougher challenge is to create, and then grow, an adequate supply of receptors in the

    local or regional economy to absorb and stimulate the newly-minted talent. Here, the key is

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    uncompromising insistence on excellence according to global standards. Why? It is because

    research excellence initiates and sustains a virtuous circle. The production of exceptionally well-

    trained graduates at a first-class research university like Dalhousie attracts investment that is in

    search of a reliable source of talent; that investment then expands the local market for talent, thus

    creating more opportunities for graduates to stay, and others to be attracted; leading to more

    investment. This cycle of self-reinforcement is the genesis of a research-based cluster.

    I would emphasize that even those who leave should not be considered lost. Professor

    Doug Wallace, the Scientific Director of the Halifax Marine Research Institute, is returning to

    his alma mater with a global scientific reputation, and network of contacts to match, that will

    profoundly strengthen the marine research base in this community. And even those graduates

    who dont return, nevertheless constitute a Nova Scotian research diaspora in effect, a global

    network of talent that knows who we are, and what we can do. In the global village, they are

    great neighbours to have.

    We are here tonight to celebrate the value, not just of research, but of marine research


    If you will permit me a small personal anecdote my first contact with the substance of

    marine research was as a Grade VI student in Annapolis Royal where, for some reason, I chose

    oceanography as the subject for what today we would call a term paper. No Google or

    Wikipedia back then in 1953, but I discovered a factoid in the Encyclopedia Britannica that was

    so mind-blowing that I still recall it as though it were yesterday. The claim was that the human

    eye is most sensitive to the colour of light to which seawater is most transparent. I dont think I

    had heard of Charles Darwin at the time but I still remember the thrill of that eureka moment:

    My golly, that could only happen if our ancestors really came from the ocean. So our cousins

    are fish!.

    A funny story perhaps, but it contains the germ of a profound truth. The ocean in fact,

    there really is only one ocean -- is so important because it represents connectedness the

    connectedness that for centuries bound humanity together via exploration, trade, and sometimes

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    warfare. It was, after all, the access afforded by sea that allowed tiny Britain to found an empire;

    and it is a sea now filled with container ships that has allowed the economy to become truly


    There is a much deeper connectedness the connectedness between ocean and

    atmosphere that rules our weather, and ultimately our climate; the connectedness between sun

    and sea that makes the oceans the source of at least half the primary biological production of our

    planet, and that promises to provide new sources of clean renewable energy via waves, currents,

    thermal gradients and biomass from marine algae. (Research on the latter technology is going on

    in NRCs Institute for Marine Biosciences just a few kilometers from where we sit.)

    Another consequence of the interconnectedness mediated by the ocean is a growing

    interconnection of collective human welfare whether it concerns access to the vast potential

    reserves of ocean-based minerals; or the protection of costal zones; or the sustainability of

    marine harvesting an issue brought compellingly to world attention by Boris Worm here at

    Dalhousie. These issues are so challenging politically because the ocean is the worlds last great

    commons owned by no nation but coveted by many. That is why research and creativity in the

    field of marine policy and governance a field of particular strength at Dalhousie is so


    The value of marine research is of course a consequence of the value and importance of

    the ocean made all the more so because that importance is growing, while our knowledge of

    the ocean remains fragmentary, and thus much in need of further research.

    Why can we say that the importance of the ocean is increasing? Let me count some of the


    We can say it is increasing because of the essential role played by ocean phenomena in the processes of climate change.

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    The importance of the ocean is increasing because of our growing demand for hydrocarbon energy today, 30% of the worlds oil supply is sourced offshore, in

    environments that are often at the limit of engineering capabilities as the BP blowout in

    the Gulf of Mexico so forcefully reminded us.

    The importance of the ocean is increasing because of the pressing need to develop new and cleaner sources of energy whether from the tides (where we in Nova Scotia are

    uniquely well-placed) or from novel ways to capture, via physical and biological

    processes, even a small fraction of the solar energy impinging daily on the worlds


    The importance of the ocean is increasing because of unprecedented threats to marine biodiversity arising from the growing scale of human activity, whether due to

    contamination, unsustainable harvesting, ocean acidification (from an increasing CO2

    load), or due to other processes not yet recognized. (To provide a societal perspective on

    these issues, HMRI is fortunate to have on its External Advisory Committee, Gerald

    Butts, President of the World Wildlife Fund-Canada.)

    The importance of the ocean is increasing because of a growing vulnerability to extreme marine events whether from hurricanes or tsunamis as coastal populations mushroom.

    In fact, about two-thirds of the human population lives within 100 kilometers of a

    seacoast. The payoff from earlier warning which promises to come from the type of

    research being undertaken by Professor Wallace and colleagues would be both huge

    and very tangible.

    I could go on, but you get the point. The need for marine research, already great, can

    only become greater. But what about the ability to deliver the required research results? This is

    crucial because a business model with plenty of demand but very little supply would obviously

    not create a lot of value.

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    Fortunately, the news is good. Those who know the field far better than I do my

    knowledge of marine science being distinctly secondhand point to an observational revolution

    in marine science. The ocean always largely opaque to human observation is becoming, in

    effect transparent, thanks to the falling cost and dramatically increased capability of monitoring

    technology together with the computing power needed to analyze the resulting torrents of real-

    time data. So we have, for example, the global Ocean Tracking Network tracing the

    movements of marine animals worldwide and headquartered right here at Dalhousie under the

    leadership of Ron ODor, Sara Iverson and Fred Whoriskey as well as the NEPTUNE network

    of internet-connected, sea-bed monitors off the BC coast, under the direction of Dr. Martin

    Taylor, another member of the HMRIs External Advisory Committee.

    Anticipating the next part of the story, the revolution in marine observation and data

    analysis has spawned a specialized industry well represented here in the Halifax area but with a

    market that is inherently global. The key word here is global. The ocean is the essence of

    globalism the planetary interconnectedness I spoke of earlier.

    So what does a global perspective imply for Canada, for the Atlantic region, and for

    Halifax? It implies, above all, the need to focus on strengths. For a small jurisdiction like Nova

    Scotia, specialization in areas of exceptional strength is a sine qua non for participation in global

    value chains the integrated networks of production whose functions and components are

    sourced worldwide. Increasingly, all value chains for sophisticated products are going global.

    They are where the leading edge of knowledge, technology and skill are being brought to bear,

    and consequently where wealth creation will primarily take place. Specialization is needed

    because the performance standards set within these value chains are extremely high. Since the

    competitors can now come from almost anywhere, its really like the Olympics; not your

    provincial championship.

    Like the aspiring Olympic athlete, it certainly helps to start from a strong base. In

    Atlantic Canada, and particularly right here in Halifax, it is hard to think of a better strength to

    build on than oceans activity ranging from world-class ecotourism to the most advanced

    marine technologies. Consider the assets already in placeand here I will draw from an

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    authoritative report on Nova Scotias marine technology sector just released by the Provincial


    Roughly 15% of Nova Scotias economic output is ocean-related; some $5 billion of activity annually.

    This city is of course home to world-class naval and other marine security facilities, as well as Irvings Halifax Shipyard, one of Canadas top defence contractors and, we may

    hope, the future supplier of the major portion of the governments $30 billion (plus)

    National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy. That would be transformational.

    We have an impressive concentration of advanced skills, including some 450 PhDs in the oceans-related disciplines in Nova Scotia, one of the highest such concentrations


    Nova Scotia hosts more than 200 ocean technology companies ranging from multinationals to nimble start-ups. Sales of this burgeoning sector, which performs about

    a third of the business R & D in the province, doubled between 2003 and 2009 and now

    total more than half a billion dollars annually much of it from outside of Canada. I

    shouldnt start to name names because, obviously, I cant run through all 200 or more.

    So, simply by way of illustration of the breadth and depth of this community, let me

    restrict myself to a few whose executives have generously agreed to serve on the External

    Advisory Committee of the HMRI Jean-Paul Deveau, President of Acadia Seaplants;

    Jim Hanlon, President of Ultra Electronics Maritime Systems; Robert Orr, Chairman of

    Ocean Nutrition Canada; and John Risley, founder of Clearwater Fine Foods.

    Complementing their impressive business experience and expertise on our Advisory

    Committee are Karen Oldfield, CEO of the Halifax Port Authority, David Mann, former

    CEO of Emera and now Counsel to the law firm, Cox and Palmer; Ian Thompson,

    Deputy Minister of the Nova Scotia Department of Economic and Rural Development

    and Tourism; and Scott Travers, President of Minas Basin Pulp and Power, a key player

    in the exciting new tidal power initiative in the Bay of Fundy. We are also very fortunate

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    to have on the Advisory Committee, Meg ONeill, the President of ExxonMobil Canada,

    who brings both an Atlantic Provinces perspective as well as essential insight into

    offshore development.

    A second major local group of specialized marine science assets in terms both of highly-qualified people and associated infrastructure is contributed by the federal

    departments of Fisheries and Oceans; Environment; Natural Resources; Defence R&D,

    and the Marine Biosciences Institute of the NRC. The Bedford Institute of

    Oceanography, which hosts some 700 scientists, engineers and technicians, is the largest

    dedicated marine research facility in Canada.

    Finally, of course, there is the academic sector, led by Dalhousie, but with areas of specialized expertise at other universities throughout the region. Dalhousie receives

    about one-quarter of the federal oceans research grants in Canada, all competitively

    awarded. And perhaps no competition was keener than that for one the small number of

    new Canada Excellence Research Chairs each funded at $10 million over seven years.

    Professor Doug Wallace, a winner in the inaugural competition, will now move from the

    Institute of Marine Sciences in Kiel, Germany to take up his Chair in Ocean Science and

    Technology at Dalhousie. Fortunately, a close connection with the German marine

    research community will be maintained, not only through Professor Wallace but also

    through the participation in HMRIs External Advisory Committee of the Kiel Institutes

    Director, Dr. Peter Herzig. The cultivation of a globe-spanning network of partners is of

    the essence in marine research another manifestation of ocean connectedness.

    This enumeration leaves no doubt that Nova Scotia and the Halifax area in particular

    has the base of skills and facilities to be a global player in research-based oceans activities. We

    have here an extraordinary combination of capabilities in the ocean technologies business sector;

    in major government marine research facilities; and in top caliber university research covering

    all the relevant disciplines of oceanography, engineering, law, social science and management.

    But is the whole greater than the sum of the parts?

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    No; I am afraid it is not -- at least not yet. The global significance of our marine

    research-based cluster exists much more in potential than in reality. Among impediments are that

    the incentives in the academic world continue to sustain disciplinary silos. Government science

    seems more constrained than ever by narrow mandates and over-zealous accountability regimes.

    And the private sector players are naturally pre-occupied with their own market development and

    growing the bottom line.

    Clearly, it takes a jolt of leadership to break out of this unconnected equilibrium where

    everyone continues to do his or her own thing. Finally, that jolt of leadership has emerged with

    the creation of HMRI the Halifax Marine Research Institute.

    The Institute will have a small staff and a physical presence currently in space

    generously provided by NRC, but eventually in Dalhousies new Oceans Excellence Centre. But,

    in essence, HMRI is a network, the linking tissue that can connect the disparate nodes of marine

    research-based activity in the region and eventually make the whole much greater than the sum

    of the parts.

    More concretely, the mission of HMRI a non-profit corporation is to promote the

    application of research to the economic, social and environmental challenges and opportunities

    pertinent to the regional, Canadian and international oceans. To this end, HMRI will bring

    together university researchers and industry to address industry-led questions and seek

    Collaborative Research and Development funding from federal granting agencies, as well as

    larger scale collaborative projects with larger scale funding. This win-win combination will

    expand the R & D capacity of local oceans technologies companies and foster many more

    partnerships between industry and university-based researchers. HMRI will also use its

    networking capacity to bring together researchers from federal labs, from universities and from

    industry to discover areas of complementary interest that, despite physical proximity, have too

    often gone unrecognized. And, not least, a further important role of HMRI will be to draw

    greater national and international attention to the remarkable assemblage of marine research

    capabilities in the region.

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    We are off to a great start with Premier Dexters inspiring announcement today ( June 2 )

    of $1.75 million of support for HMRI over five years, a very tangible affirmation by the Province

    of Nova Scotia of the strategic importance of ocean science and technology for the future

    prosperity of this region.

    The roster of corporate members of HMRI the first of which was Irving Shipbuilding

    is now expanding rapidly and will tightly link our new Institute to the local economy. University

    membership has also grown quickly and already includes representation from all three Maritime

    Provinces. Five federal departments have been involved in the creation of HMRI and continue as

    research partners. Dalhousie has of course been a driving force from the outset and is an anchor

    supporter, both in cash and in-kind. For this, great thanks are owed to President Tom Traves,

    Martha Crago and Iain Stewart and their team for providing, first the vision and then the jolt of

    leadership to which I referred earlier.

    So, ladies and gentlemen, we may hope that with the creation of the Halifax Marine

    Research Institute, the missing ingredient has finally been added the ingredient that will

    cause the extraordinary marine research-based assets in this region to gel into something greater

    greater for Halifax, greater for Nova Scotia, greater for Canada, indeed greater for the

    worldand an embodiment of the value of marine research.


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