The UN Decade of Ocean Science

Profiles of Norwegian Science


Photo: Ilan Kelman
Beauty graces the ocean near Trondheim.

Agder, Norway

The United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development is 2021-2030. Norwegian science supports this worldwide effort.

It began with the Research Council of Norway recently publishing a report outlining the principal areas for Norwegian contributions. Ten priorities were selected by a group of eight members from around Norway. Some of them are affiliated with more than one organization, so they collectively represent five universities, four research institutes, industry, and the non-profit sector. Their priority areas are:

1. Climate and environment interactions

2. Holistic ocean governance

3. Healthy and safe seafood for all

4. Renewable energy from the ocean

5. Environmentally friendly maritime transport

6. An ocean of data

7. Who owns the ocean?

8. Keeping the Arctic as one

9. Global ocean economy and development aid

10. Everyone understands the ocean!

The group’s own research interests are evident in setting and describing the priorities.

Priority 3 is impressive in covering food. Information about obtaining freshwater from the oceans is almost absent in the full 28-page report. What roles exist for desalination to freshwater lenses and to wells, especially as sea level rise starts adding salt to groundwater? Another point of interest to elaborate would be how much of the seafood and aquaculture agenda is animal-based and how much is plant-based.

Similarly, indigenous peoples are mentioned only twice, both times in Priority 8. Indigenous knowledge and wisdom from around the Arctic are rich on all aspects of ocean-society connections, with some examples being ecosystems, ice, weather, and waves. With questions such as Priority 7, why are all Arctic peoples not fully integrated throughout the priorities?

Priority 5 is almost exclusively about technology, without fully considering changes to behavior and attitudes. This priority could more usefully have been “Environmentally friendly transport,” since land and air transport significantly affect the oceans. Integrated transport management—such as connecting roads, rail, and ferries—is essential for many ocean-dependent communities sending their ocean-related products to diverse markets.

Other examples appear of the need for further engagement with wider science. The first word of the first priority is “climate,” and one of the group’s initial statements in the report is: “Climate change is the paramount challenge of our time.” This claim is not supported by scientific investigations into deep-rooted, chronic challenges, with examples being inequity, marginalization, poor health, poverty, and lack of sustainability.

Comprehensive tallies of pollution, ecosystem destruction, biodiversity loss, and exploitation of people and nature list climate change as one important input among many, but not necessarily, the dominating factor.

Nonetheless, featuring human-caused climate change proves the disconnect between the report’s concerns and the government of Norway continuing to expand possibilities for fossil fuel exploration and extraction. Additionally, the report’s priorities for climate and climate change highlight physical science understandings, helpfully reflecting Norway’s weakness in the social sciences of climate change, especially climate change adaptation.

Conversely, Priority 6 emphasizes Norway’s scientific strengths. It is impressively non-disciplinary, factoring in data from numerous research perspectives. More poignantly, it directly integrates human use of oceans and ocean ecosystems, even if data on perceptions and cultural knowledge and wisdom are not mentioned.

Arts and culture are prominent in Priority 10, which is about communicating science. Education and the role of people in science are important aspects. This powerful priority should have been first. As the list stands now, it repeats the tired and regressive pathway of scientists conducting science alone. 

Only at the end do researchers connect their results to society as separate activities of communication to and engagement with non-scientists. Instead, education, people, and scientific literacy should be part of project design from the beginning and implemented throughout. It is intriguing that no teacher outside of tertiary education and no ordinary person was included in the group that defined the priorities.

Kudos to the Research Council of Norway’s Ocean Secretariat for ensuring that Norwegian science takes direction from and gives plenty back to this decade. These international endeavors shape how science serves society, with Norway continually at the forefront of many initiatives. More could yet be done to make Norway’s ocean science priorities fully reflective of forward-thinking directions worthy of an entire decade.

The full report is available at:

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 12, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.