The Intersection of Science and Politics

By Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

As much as I try to keep politics out of my science vocabulary, there are some ties between the two that cannot be severed. Often, science in the United States is very linked to the government because funding can be dependent on federal, state, and/or local government decisions. Therefore, it is part of our responsibility as scientists to be, at least, informed on governmental proceedings.

The United States has one agency that is particularly important to those of us conducting marine science: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA’s mission is science, service, and stewardship with three major components:

  1. To understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans and coasts
  2. To share that knowledge and information with others
  3. To conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources
noaa org chart
Organizational Chart of NOAA. (Image source: OrgCharting)

Last year, the U.S. Senate confirmed Retired Rear Admiral Timothy Gallaudet, Ph.D., as the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere for the Department of Commerce in NOAA. This position is an appointment by the current President of the United States, and is tasked with overseeing the daily functions and the strategic and operational future of NOAA. NOAA oversees the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which is an agency responsible for the stewardship and management of the nation’s living marine resources. NMFS is a major player when it comes to marine science, particularly through the determination of priorities for research and management of marine species and habitats within the United States’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

In dark blue, the United States’ Exclusive Economic zones, surrounding land masses in green. (Figure by K. Laws)

Recently, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Gallaudet speak to scientists who work for, or in conjunction with, a NMFS office. After the 16% budget cut from the fiscal year 2017 to 2018, many marine scientists are concerned about how budget changes will impact research. Therefore, I knew Dr. Gallaudet’s visit would provide insight about the future of marine science in the United States.

Dr. Gallaudet holds master’s and doctoral degrees in oceanography from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, as well as a bachelor’s degree from the United States Naval Academy. He spent 32 years in the Navy before stepping into his current role as Assistant Secretary. Throughout the meeting, Dr. Gallaudet emphasized his leadership motto: All in, All Good, and All for One.

Dr. Gallaudet also spoke about where he sees NOAA moving towards: the private sector.

A prominent conservation geneticist asked Dr. Gallaudet how NOAA can better foster advanced degree-seeking students. The geneticist commented that a decade ago there were 10-12 PhD students in this one science center alone. Today, there is “maybe one”. Dr. Gallaudet responded that the science centers should start reaching out to private industry. In response to other questions, he continued to redirect scientists toward United States-based corporations that could join forces with government agencies. He believes that if NMFS scientists share data and projects with local biotechnology, medical, and environmental companies, the country can foster positive relationships with industry. Dr. Gallaudet commented that the President wants to create these win-win situations: where the US government pairs with for-profit companies. It is up to us, as the scientists, how we make those connections.

As scientists, we frequently avoid heated political banter in the hopes of maintaining an objective and impartial approach to our research. However, these lines can be blurred. Much of our science depends on political decisions that mold our future, including how funding is allocated and what goals are prioritized. In 2010, Science Magazine published an online article, “Feeding your Research into the Policy Debate” where Elisabeth Pain highlighted the interdisciplinary nature of science and policy. In Pain’s interview with Troy Benn, a PhD student in Urban Ecology at the time, Benn comments that he learned just how much scientists play a role in policy and how research contributes to policy deliberations. Sometimes our research becomes of interest to politicians and sometimes it is the other way around.

From my experiences collaborating with government entities, private corporations, and nonprofit organizations, I realize that science-related policy is imperative. California established a non-profit, the California Ocean Science Trust (OST), for the specific objective supporting management decisions with the best science and bridging science and policy. A critical analysis of the OST by Pietri et al., “Using Science to Inform Controversial Issues: A Case Study from the California Ocean Science Trust”, matches legislation with science. For example, the Senate Bill (SB) 1319, better known as the California Ocean Protection Act (COPA), calls for “decisions informed by good science” and to “advance scientific understanding”. Science is explicitly written into legislation and I think that is a call to action. If an entire state can mobilize resources to create a team of interdisciplinary experts, I can inform myself on the politics that have potential to shape my future and the future of my science.

An image of the NOAA ship Bell M. Shimada transiting between stations. Multiple members of the GEMM Lab conducted surveys from this NOAA vessel in 2018. (Image source: Alexa Kownacki)

The Recipe for a “Perfect” Marine Mammal and Seabird Cruise

By Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Science—and fieldwork in particular—is known for its failures. There are websites, blogs, and Twitter pages dedicated to them. This is why, when things go according to plan, I rejoice. When they go even better than expected, I practically tear up from amazement. There is no perfect recipe for a great marine mammal and seabird research cruise, but I would suggest that one would look like this:

 A Great Marine Mammal and Seabird Research Cruise Recipe:

  • A heavy pour of fantastic weather
    • Light on the wind and seas
    • Light on the glare
  • Equal parts amazing crew and good communication
  • A splash of positivity
  • A dash of luck
  • A pinch of delicious food
  • Heaps of marine mammal and seabird sightings
  • Heat to approximately 55-80 degrees F and transit for 10 days along transects at 10-12 knots
The end of another beautiful day at sea on the R/V Shimada. Image source: Alexa K.

The Northern California Current Ecosystem (NCCE) is a highly productive area that is home to a wide variety of cetacean species. Many cetaceans are indicator species of ecosystem health as they consume large quantities of prey from different levels in trophic webs and inhabit diverse areas—from deep-diving beaked whales to gray whales traveling thousands of miles along the eastern north Pacific Ocean. Because cetacean surveys are a predominant survey method in large bodies of water, they can be extremely costly. One alternative to dedicated cetacean surveys is using other research vessels as research platforms and effort becomes transect-based and opportunistic—with less flexibility to deviate from predetermined transects. This decreases expenses, creates collaborative research opportunities, and reduces interference in animal behavior as they are never pursued. Observing animals from large, motorized, research vessels (>100ft) at a steady, significant speed (>10kts/hour), provides a baseline for future, joint research efforts. The NCCE is regularly surveyed by government agencies and institutions on transects that have been repeated nearly every season for decades. This historical data provides critical context for environmental and oceanographic dynamics that impact large ecosystems with commercial and recreational implications.

My research cruise took place aboard the 208.5-foot R/V Bell M. Shimada in the first two weeks of May. The cruise was designated for monitoring the NCCE with the additional position of a marine mammal observer. The established guidelines did not allow for deviation from the predetermined transects. Therefore, mammals were surveyed along preset transects. The ship left port in San Francisco, CA and traveled as far north as Cape Meares, OR. The transects ranged from one nautical mile from shore and two hundred miles offshore. Observations occurred during “on effort” which was defined as when the ship was in transit and moving at a speed above 8 knots per hour dependent upon sea state and visibility. All observations took place on the flybridge during conducive weather conditions and in the bridge (one deck below the flybridge) when excessive precipitation was present. The starboard forward quarter: zero to ninety degrees was surveyed—based on the ship’s direction (with the bow at zero degrees). Both naked eye and 7×50 binoculars were used with at least 30 percent of time binoculars in use. To decrease observer fatigue, which could result in fewer detected sightings, the observer (me) rotated on a 40 minutes “on effort”, 20 minutes “off effort” cycle during long transits (>90 minutes).

Alexa on-effort using binoculars to estimate the distance and bearing of a marine mammal sighted off the starboard bow. Image source: Alexa K.

Data was collected using modifications to the SEEbird Wincruz computer program on a ruggedized laptop and a GPS unit was attached. At the beginning of each day and upon changes in conditions, the ship’s heading, weather conditions, visibility, cloud cover, swell height, swell direction, and Beaufort sea state (BSS) were recorded. Once the BSS or visibility was worse than a “5” (1 is “perfect” and 5 is “very poor”) observations ceased until there was improvement in weather. When a marine mammal was sighted the latitude and longitude were recorded with the exact time stamp. Then, I noted how the animal was sighted—either with binoculars or naked eye—and what action was originally noticed—blow, splash, bird, etc. The bearing and distance were noted using binoculars. The animal was given three generalized behavior categories: traveling, feeding, or milling. A sighting was defined as any marine mammal or group of animals. Therefore, a single sighting would have the species and the best, high, and low estimates for group size.

By my definitions, I had the research cruise of my dreams. There were moments when I imagined people joining this trip as a vacation. I *almost* felt guilty. Then, I remember that after watching water for almost 14 hours (thanks to the amazing weather conditions), I worked on data and reports and class work until midnight. That’s the part that no one talks about: the data. Fieldwork is about collecting data. It’s both what I live for and what makes me nervous. The amount of time, effort, and money that is poured into fieldwork is enormous. The acquisition of the data is not as simple as it seems. When I briefly described my position on this research cruise to friends, they interpret it to be something akin to whale-watching. To some extent, this is true. But largely, it’s grueling hours that leave you fatigued. The differences between fieldwork and what I’ll refer to as “everything else” AKA data analysis, proposal writing, manuscript writing, literature reviewing, lab work, and classwork, are the unbroken smile, the vaguely tanned skin, the hours of laughter, the sea spray, and the magical moments that reassure me that I’ve chosen the correct career path.

Alexa photographing a gray whale at sunset near Newport, OR. Image source: Alexa K.

This cruise was the second leg of the Northern California Current Ecosystem (NCCE) survey, I was the sole Marine Mammal and Seabird Observer—a coveted position. Every morning, I would wake up at 0530hrs, grab some breakfast, and climb to the highest deck: the fly-bridge. Akin to being on the top of the world, the fly-bridge has the best views for the widest span. From 0600hrs to 2000hrs I sat, stood, or danced in a one-meter by one-meter corner of the fly-bridge and surveyed. This visual is why people think I’m whale watching. In reality, I am constantly busy. Nonetheless, I had weather and seas that scientists dream about—and for 10 days! To contrast my luck, you can read Florence’s blog about her cruise. On these same transects, in February, Florence experienced 20-foot seas with heavy rain with very few marine mammal sightings—and of those, the only cetaceans she observed were gray whales close to shore. That starkly contrasts my 10 cetacean species with upwards of 45 sightings and my 20-minute hammock power naps on the fly-bridge under the warm sun.

Pacific white-sided dolphins traveling nearby. Image source: Alexa K.

Marine mammal sightings from this cruise included 10 cetacean species: Pacific white-sided dolphin, Dall’s porpoise, unidentified beaked whale, Cuvier’s beaked whale, gray whale, Minke whale, fin whale, Northern right whale dolphin, blue whale, humpback whale, and transient killer whale and one pinniped species: northern fur seal. What better way to illustrate these sightings than with a map? We are a geospatial lab after all.

Cetacean Sightings on the NCCE Cruise in May 2018. Image source: Alexa K.

This map is the result of data collection. However, it does not capture everything that was observed: sea state, weather, ocean conditions, bathymetry, nutrient levels, etc. There are many variables that can be added to maps–like this one (thanks to my GIS classes I can start adding layers!)–that can provide a better understanding of the ecosystem, predator-prey dynamics, animal behavior, and population health.

The catch from a bottom trawl at a station with some fish and a lot of pyrosomes (pink tube-like creatures). Image source: Alexa K.

Being a Ph.D. student can be physically and mentally demanding. So, when I was offered the opportunity to hone my data collection skills, I leapt for it. I’m happiest in the field: the wind in my face, the sunshine on my back, surrounded by cetaceans, and filled with the knowledge that I’m following my passion—and that this data is contributing to the greater scientific community.

Humpback whale photographed traveling southbound. Image source: Alexa K.