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Oceans apart: SA’s fragmented marine science

South African coastal and marine research is locked in geographic and disciplinary silos and fails to meet pressing real-life needs, a pair of papers published in the South African Journal of Science argue.

The papers, published on 30 January, raise concerns about the way marine research is funded in the country. They argue that more funding needs to be plowed into interdisciplinary and problem-oriented research, while also strengthening collaboration with neighbouring countries.

“Urgent realignment of funding and incentives for marine and coastal science […] is likely to be required to ensure science provides a greater service to society,” write the three authors of the one paper, who hail from Rhodes University in Grahamstown.

The threesome, led by fisheries professor Kevern Cochrane, analysed the content of presentations made at the South African Marine Science Symposium in Nelson Mandela Bay in July 2017. The event, held every three years, is the most important fixture on South Africa’s marine research calendar.

Of 180 presentations representing the work of some 670 researchers, only 21 per cent were judged to be “actionable” and directly relevant to social needs. And a meagre 10 per cent drew on both natural and human science disciplines.

This dearth of human sciences is a particular cause of concern, the authors write, given that most problems surrounding marine resource use are inextricably linked to human society, through issues such as pollution and overfishing. They accuse social science and humanities training of focusing too much on debates around identity, race and gender, which they describe as ‘academic’ and ‘abstract’.

“Sadly, many humanities scholars are engaged in abstract debates when the South African marine environment is being degraded at an unprecedented rate, contributing to the impoverishment of many of the same subjects that they study and which they want to liberate from poverty,” they write.

While they admit that presentations at one conference may provide an “incomplete snapshot” of the country’s research activities, the trends in their data are “sufficiently marked such that the potential error is unlikely to change the overall picture”.

To address these concerns, the paper’s authors urge South Africa’s research funders to urgently review their priorities, and—if necessary—create dedicated calls for proposals for problem-focused, interdisciplinary marine research.

Currents in collaboration

The second paper, published by Mark Gibbons and Bonga Govuza from the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, laments the dearth of collaborative research between nations bordering the Benguela Current that flows up the southwest coast of Africa.

The authors scanned 808 peer-reviewed articles focusing on marine science in the region published between 2000-2016. Although funding ramped up in the first half of that period, the authors could not identify any temporal trends in either output or patterns of collaboration.

Overall, even though 71 per cent of the papers involved authors from at least one of the three countries that border the Benguela—South Africa, Namibia and Angola—only 12 per cent included partners from two or more of these countries.

Nearly half (43 per cent) of South Africa’s publications had no authors from other countries, and only 18 per cent of its papers were authored with colleagues from Namibia, Angola, or both: “In other words, researchers in South Africa were best at working with themselves, and chose to collaborate with non-regional partners on regional science.”

Meanwhile, some research carried out by countries far from the Benguela, such as Germany, produced papers with no local authors, they write.

Projects should become more inclusive, they say, and involve local regional partners at the design stage: “There is much room for improvement if we are to move forward in a more equitable way, as regional nations.”