Return from the Frontiers of Science

My plan to blog nightly from the Royal Society / Australian Academy of Sciences FoS meeting in Perth, which started promisingly, was stymmied rather by the packed and punishing schedule. Add on >24h travelling either end of a 4 day meeting, and I’ve basically been away from a keyboard for a week. But, I did want to give some closing thoughts on the whole process. First, anyone who is at all environmentally aware will feel pangs of guilt about flying to any scientific meeting, let alone UK-Australia-UK in less than a week (especially when I should really have been manning the Science is Vital barricades). When half the meeting is spent discussing the consequences of similar patterns of consumption over the last couple of centuries – climate change in the broadest sense, with particular focus on ocean acidification – there is a special irony. But this is one kind of meeting where Skype doesn’t cut it, and on balance I feel that the carbon has been well spent.

Certainly, seeds of several ideas have been sown in my head – the kinds of ideas that almost never arise when attending a standard ‘disciplinary’ conference (meaning, a conference based around a single discipline, rather than anything kinky…). In part this was due to the structure of the sessions (each one consisting 1h of talks followed by a further hour of general discussion), and the broad mix of people there. But also, the total immersion in the meeting (to the extent that I only managed to stick my toe in the Indian Ocean, fully 5 minutes walk from the hotel, just before leaving) meant that ideas continued to ping around late into the night. (If this makes the experience sound horribly formal, let me add that these later ideas were inevitably generated in the bar, and, on sober reflection the following day, proved not all to be quite as superb as originally thought.)

Asked to sum up the conference, I chose one word: interdependence. Partly, this was to reflect the repeated message that to study the ocean is inevitably to enter the realms of interdisciplinary science. You can’t undestand marine ecology without some understanding of physics (e.g. ocean circulation) or chemistry (e.g. the availability of biologically essential trace metals); but equally the production and transfer of biomass through ecological networks affects both the physics and chemistry of the marine environment.

There was a lot of other intedependence on show too. The mutualism between modellers and empiricists, for example. A model not grounded in real data is perhaps diverting, but ultimately useless; collecting data with no theory for guidence is unlikely to be particularly profitable. And the need to integrate insights from the past – whether from the fossil record, or from the historical record of people’s exploitation of the sea – with contemporary data, both to understand the present and to predict the future as we enter climatic conditions unkown in human history.

Finally, there is always the temptation among the scientifically minded to take an engineering approach to managing natural systems. This leads to the mentality that human intervention is required to ‘fix’ the marine environment. Unquestionably, some such interventions are needed – setting some limits on fisheries, for example, and curbing carbon emissions (although I remain sceptical of some of the more drastic geoengineering suggestions, such as iron fertilisation to induce phytoplankton blooms – how much energy is needed to extract and transport that much iron to the Southern Ocean?). But this conference reminded us that really it is us who depend on the seas, and that the most convincing argument for managing them more wisely is simple self interest.