Being a PhD Candidate comes with many trade-offs. One of them is the tunnel vision that we develop by virtue of scrutinizing chosen topics over everything else. While the steep learning curve and a tight schedule convince us that focusing is the only way, my PhD experience (Ocean Week panel discussion as a vivid example) suggests that zooming out and stepping outside of the bubble may be a good idea.
Last month was eventful for those studying, working with, or simply caring about the Ocean – Ocean Week conference took place in Trondheim and Ålesund, Norway on 6-8 May. This annual conference brought together most passionate and professional individuals to discuss a very important and pressing issue – ocean health. This article is essentially a follow-up on the panel discussion: “The role of international alliances, research, technology, innovation & the arts for a healthy ocean” that I had an honour of taking part in. Here, I would like to express my personal opinion on the topic from an aspiring scientist perspective, at the same time sharing a few insights of such a powerful experience through the lens of my PhD journey.
In a wide range of sessions and covered topics presented at the Ocean Week there was one that stood out – deep-sea mining. As it was put by Nancy Bazilchuk, panel moderator and a conference MC: “as an extractive industry, mining could be viewed by some as potentially at odds with promoting a healthy ocean”. While the need for food resources is obvious to everyone, fishing industry is generally accepted by the majority and does not evoke big debates on its existence; Oil and gas resources that largely define the world economic landscape are, if not fully accepted, acknowledged by the majority. Ocean mineral resources, on the other hand, often trigger negative or at least questioning emotion. Such a dubious connotation may be attributed to several factors. First, as a newly emerged topic (even though marine mineral resources have been known for almost a century now), it is simply not commonly understood as well – what are the commodities hidden in deep water, how deep is the water, what are the quantities, what is the potential use, what is the demand at the moment, what is the projection of future demands, is there a market, are there technologies etc. It is necessary to address all these questions in order to form an understanding about the value of these resources, both current and potential. Yet, it is impossible to go about the benefits without understanding the risks and counterbalancing or, possibly, outbalancing harm. That brings us to the second yet very important point that concerns ocean health (read: planet health) – the environmental impact of the mining. While intuitive thinking makes most of us discard deep-sea mining right away because it involves operating in deep constantly circulating ocean water, thus having high pollution risks and affecting a vast interconnected ecosystem, this perspective is not the whole story either. Well, I have been trying to answer the aforementioned questions and many other inferential ones for as long as my PhD lasts. Spoiler alert: I will not address them in this blog post. Not only because it takes much more than a ‘scrollable’ content size implied by the blog format, neither because there is plenty of information and meta-analysis on the subject in scientific papers and other sources. Mainly because being challenged by the big questions set for the panel discussion, I want to step out of my expertise field and tackle some of the big-picture issues in the context of the Ocean Week agenda.
As a strong believer in an interdisciplinary approach in problem-solving and work in general, I have been fortunate to find a PhD project that embodied this way of thinking in a research pilot studying Deep Sea Mining from different angles. The idea behind this group is to serve the sustainable use of the ocean mineral resources by comprehensive research, creating and developing knowledge on a complex marine system and providing technological solutions for subsequent responsible regulation of the ocean resources. Involvement in this highly diverse group of PhD candidates and postdoctoral fellows and the exposure to different perspectives, in particular, have transformed my own view and developed a more comprehensive understanding of the matter among all group members.
When thinking about the role of international alliances, such a micro-alliance that constitutes our pilot, makes a strong case to believe that multi-disciplinary group of experts with different backgrounds is key in problem-solving at any given scale – be it one institution, a country, or a global entity. While this idea has been acknowledged by many decision-makers across the board, it is not as commonly exercised as it should be. Even in science, where critical unbiased thinking is fundamental, people tend to fall into echo chambers by virtue of deepening their knowledge in a given field and not actively exposing themselves to other issues and people working outside of their tight circles. It demands extra work and it is a hard work to get out of one’s comfortable bubble where everyone speaks the same language, or rather jargon, yet that is the only place where creativity boosts and innovation can happen. And I do not argue for dilettantism here – a group of dilettantes is definitely not more effective nor insightful. My concern is that working on a PhD comes with an inherent feature of prioritizing and praising scrutiny of a given subject, which is, of course, essential for a scientist, yet it often makes research disconnected from the bigger context and makes it hard to apply in a timely fashion.
The major take-away from the conference for me was that nothing is black and white in the highly complex and constantly changing World that we live in, and particularly in the circulating Ocean. One big question that we, as a highly industrialized society, confront every day: “What is the right balance between benefit and impact?”. Deep sea mining is one example of the many complicated matters. The complexity of the ocean, with all its vital functions and resources, and our interaction with this system are challenging. Things are changing all the time. Not only do meteorological conditions have been changing rapidly in recent years, but economic, political, social climates as well. Hence, none of the issues can be regarded as a static matter, meaning that the measures should be as timely as possible. Even more than that, a reactive approach is simply not appropriate anymore – only proactive and precautious attitude have a chance to serve a sustainable present and future. I believe that it is our responsibility to keep our fingers on the pulse and engage in diverse conversations and keep ourselves updated on the constantly changing situation. As a PhD Candidate and an early-career scientist, I found the experience of engaging in a broadly focused panel discussion very refreshing and insightful. Let us all challenge ourselves with a bigger picture, broader discussions, and unfamiliar perspectives now and again – for a healthy ocean and a better world. After all, the ultimate goal of a scientist is to provide sound construction blocks that can support what is to come on top of the fundament we are building so elaborately.
Anna Lim is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Geoscience and Petroleum at NTNU.
She is a member of NTNU Oceans Deep Sea Mining research pilot. Her area of expertise and responsibility within the pilot project is a geophysical perspective of deep-sea exploration. Anna’s PhD research focuses on hydrothermal venting along mid-ocean ridges and the processes driving it, which involves geophysical data analysis, interpretation and modeling.
Other research interests include ocean exploration, remote sensing instrumentation, ocean data integration, responsible science at hydrothermal vents.
Among other activities during her PhD work, Anna was lucky to obtain some first-hand experience in ocean exploration by taking part in two research cruises to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, including hydrothermal venting site visit in the Norwegian-Greenland Sea.