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05/03/14

[HONOLULU] The isolated cultures spread across the Pacific were experts of marine biology long before modern science arrived. A rich bank of local knowledge amassed over generations of physical and spiritual reliance on the ocean furnished these communities with a deep understanding of ocean currents, species diversity and resource management that researchers would be sensible to acknowledge.

This week I’ve been at the biennial meeting of scientists, engineers and policymakers that is the 2014 Ocean Sciences Meeting, and I’m happy to report that I’m seeing evidence that scientists are increasingly seeking to engage beyond circles of their peers. There will always be scientists who cannot see beyond the narrow confines of their discipline, but the sizable crowds attending the sessions on traditional knowledge and community engagement make me feel these are now firmly in the minority.

Yet building fruitful relationships with societies often distrustful of outsiders needs more than just enthusiasm. It also requires trust. As Bob Richmond told the meeting in a plenary session, this can be achieved with hard work and patience — but it is a long and unsure process.

And with the spectre of climate change already looming large, time is one thing that is in short supply.

The feeling I’ve gathered from the meeting is that scientists and indigenous communities could mix more speedily if stronger scientific institutions were created across the Pacific island nations. This would not only allow training of local scientists — who already possess cultural ties — but also better place outside researchers to commit to the sustained effort required to build these bridges.

A call for capacity building is nothing new. But walking around this major meeting laid bare how much progress needs to be made. My own (deeply unscientific) headcount of attendees that I encountered from institutions based in small island developing nations could have been done with one hand with several fingers to spare.  

It is a crude measure and there are certainly many researchers working in, or who are originally from, Pacific islands that decided against the long trip to Honolulu. Yet if the make-up of the conference reflects the wider reality even to small degree, the scientific communities in these regions are as sparsely spread and isolated as the islands themselves. This must change if science and traditional societies are to collaborate more effectively in producing the best solutions for adapting to a rapidly shifting environment.
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