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Social Science and Humanities Ocean Research Across OFI: Taking Stock and Looking Forward

by Mirella Leis

Small-scale fishers can be a crucial source of food and income for local communities. We must urge that governments pay attention to their demands and create opportunities for them to maintain their livelihoods and ensure food security.

Fishing Net

On June 25th, the Ocean Frontier Institute held a virtual roundtable on 'Social Sciences and Humanities research across OFI: Taking Stock and Looking Forward". The online event, co-organized by Drs. Barbara Neis, Ratana Chuenpagdee, Paul Foley and Gerald Singh aimed at bringing together researchers, trainees and partners from phases one and two of OFI and all those who are interested in ocean and coastal communities to dialogue and strengthen the contribution of Social Sciences and Humanities research to meeting OFI objectives.

Over 70 participants from the general public and OFI research modules joined remotely. In preparation the event, the various research modules were invited to submit a brief summary of their work and reflect on their link to social sciences and humanities as well as on their contribution to OFI's overall goals. Out of the 16 OFI research modules, five particularly focus on social sciences and humanities research. The event mainly counted with the participation of representatives from those research modules, and was organized around two roundtables, each extending for one hour. The set of questions guiding the panel discussion was largely based on input from participants at the time of registration.


The first roundtable 'took stock' of social sciences and humanities research, moderated by Dr. Barbara Neis, and bringing together Drs. Charles Mather, Courtenay Parlee, Claudio Aporta and Melina Kourantidou. The invited panellists addressed the following questions: 1) What core social sciences and/or humanities questions are you addressing in your Module(s)? From the standpoint of your module, how is this work essential to the achievement of the OFI Strategic Objectives? 2) As a Social Sciences and Humanities researcher, what are the greatest opportunities and constraints on the ability of the humanities and social sciences to contribute to research and policy discussions around changing oceans and coastal communities within OFI and beyond? - What challenges around interdisciplinarity within SSH/between SSH/natural sciences have you experienced? 3) What is your team doing to maximize the opportunities and overcome the constraints you have identified? What could OFI do to help enhance the effectiveness of those efforts?

The various OFI modules have engaged in many different social sciences and/or humanities questions related to the ocean and coastal communities. For instance, OFI Module M has focused on social license and planning in aquaculture. Research in Module I has partly addressed the distribution of access and benefits from fisheries resources and markets in the context of change. More specifically, it has explored the challenges and opportunities in securing access to fisheries resources and to markets, and how thats impact fisheries and coastal communities. Module N looks into shipping from different disciplinary perspectives, relating it to marine safety, environmental protection, marine spatial planning and its potential role in managing shipping issues. Module A integrates natural and social sciences to understand marine resource management and governance using an interdisciplinary approach to develop socioecological indicators for healthy and resilient resources and communities in Nunatsiavut, Northern Labrador. Although most of the research takes place in Newfoundland and Labrador, in some cases the results can be applied elsewhere.

OFI is contributing to address social sciences and humanities knowledge gaps on oceans and coasts globally through its research. For instance, OFI is well-positioned amidst the current discourses on Blue Economy and Blue Growth, with the potential of offering a contribution to it and addressing gaps. Furthermore, research in OFI has been innovative in dealing with indigenous issues in the context of shipping, by developing an anthological discussion of the marine environment and the transformative nature of the ocean in the arctic and bringing the social dimension to arctic shipping.

Research in social sciences and humanities is critical to helping OFI achieve its vision of 'producing demonstrable and enduring social, economic and environmental benefits'. Understanding access to resources and markets in a context of climate change is a key component towards achieving that goal, as is offering innovative analytical approaches that can be applied more broadly. Likewise, some of the work within OFI supports decision-making by developing indicators and monitoring tools that integrate Western science and traditional knowledge, and uses an interdisciplinary approach to bridge the gap between natural and social sciences.  In summary, the work conducted by the various research modules is strategic to meeting OFI's overall goal in benefit of society.


The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the vulnerabilities of those who catch, process and sell fish. The expected long-term impact on fishers, processing workers and consumers could lead to exacerbating those existing vulnerabilities, but in some cases there could be measures in place that actually address vulnerabilities once exposed by the pandemic. COVID-19 has had a widespread impact not only on fisheries but also on OFI research. Although some research projects had already completed data collection in the field involving face-to-face interviews by the time the outbreak started, others had to adjust their methods to remote options of contacting participants, online or by telephone. Research engagement through in-person workshops has also been affected with most of planned events being postponed or cancelled, but the situation has pushed researchers to consider alternatives such as participatory online tools for mapping, in spite of its limitations. It is important to recognize, however, that COVID-19 can also exacerbate the gap between different knowledge systems. Possible solutions include developing strategies for online engagement such as workshops and addressing inequalities in research participation.

Not only has the COVID-19 pandemic created new challenges, but has also added to existing ones. Some of those include the lack of recognition of social sciences research in relation to natural sciences within government agencies such as Fisheries and Oceans Canada, despite the well-known importance of this dimension to achieving sustainability. This imbalance is also present within OFI where out of the 16 research modules, only five focus on social sciences. However, with OFI moving from Phase 1 into Phase 2, there has been an evolution on how social sciences has been increasingly incorporated to the project in an organic way. There are opportunities for connections, and those must be sought-after. There is a need to recognize the importance of social sciences research and the need for trained personnel to conduct such research with proper consideration for ethics and at the onset of a project rather than as an after-thought. Also crucial to conducting social sciences and humanities research is to establish long-term relationships with the communities where research takes place, and focus on capacity-building with community members at the forefront, thus increasing involvement and facilitating outcomes. In that sense, it is important to be mindful of producing community fatigue in some cases, with many researchers conducting projects within the same small communities. 

In spite of current challenges, researchers across OFI research modules focusing on social sciences and humanities see the larger infrastructure of OFI as an opportunity to develop and strengthen partnerships across the North Atlantic. OFI has played a transformative role inside and outside of the university through new and ongoing connections and collaboration amongst researchers and the establishment of a highly valuable network across organizations that might not had been established otherwise. This brings about engagement with various stakeholders and rights-holders, and facilitates sharing information and knowledge. Such engagement has been shown by OFI-led workshops held at the onset of research bringing together representatives from academia, government, industry, fishing and indigenous communities, which have encouraged new conversations and resulted in tangible outcomes in the form of publications and the inclusion of new research projects in the case of Module I in response to community-identified gaps. From the community perspective, what matters is: 'how is this going to affect me?' and 'how is this going to have an impact in my life?' And those are the challenges that OFI research needs to address eventually.

Partnering with local stakeholders and organizations at the onset of research is critical to ensure that research questions are informed by collectively-identified issues and priorities, and that outcomes are determined collaboratively, ensuring that results such as decision-making tools are valuable to end-users. Through the establishment of an open conversation with local partners beforehand can improve recommendations on ocean governance from a social institutional perspective. This should be done while ensuring equity, diversity and inclusion, challenging the colonization of institutions and in line with current social movements against racism and other injustices and inequalities. There is a need to recognize existing barriers and define how to address those priorities.

Looking forward, OFI should do a self-reflecting exercise to better understand what has been done so far and where the project stands. Local partnerships and engagement with local stakeholders must be fostered, with openness to allow initial ideas to be transformed by the engagement process. There is a need to create opportunities for highly qualified personnel (students, research assistants and post-doctoral fellows) to exchange ideas, collaborate and engage. This could be done through an OFI-organized workshop where a partner organization would pose relevant research questions within identified thematic areas and all HQPs from different backgrounds including natural and social sciences would work together to address them. Suggestions for the discussion themes include indigenous engagement, COVID-19, and the ocean as a frontier, but other ideas could be invited through a submission process. The goal of the process would be to help HQPs establish new networks that wold benefit them moving forward in their careers and help HQPs improve their individual research while also facilitating transdisciplinary and transformational research. 

The second roundtable on 'looking forward' was moderated by Dr. Aldo Chircop and brought together Drs. Paul Foley, Joel Finnis, Melanie Zurba, Stefanie Colombo, and Katleen Robert. The discussion went around the questions 1) How are social sciences and/or humanities issues being addressed in your Phase 2 research program? 2) From the standpoint of that program, how is attention to those SSH issues essential to your contribution to the achievement of the OFI Strategic Objectives? 3) Based on your review of the module/phase 2 summaries and the discussion in Roundtable 1 how do you plan to build on/extend/integrate with SSH and other research happening in Phase 1? 4) What strategies will you employ in pursuing interdisciplinarity within your research programs and in engaging with other programs? 

On OFI Phase 2, more specifically as part of FOCI, social sciences questions are central to research in all work packages and integrated work packages. The research framework is developed around the idea of infrastructures as a means of  in terms of transformation, we have our framework developed around infrastructures - the challeges of thinkign about things holistically. EDI is thought of from the onset of the WPs. we have lots of partners and engagement. we are doing innovative things such as including artistic work, dialogue sessions to develop policy solutions, working with the ocean school.

stephanie - main pbkectives of one ocean helath is to come up with innovatove solutions for antibiotic uses in aquatic animals. innovative is engagement with local fishers that will be incorporated in one of the WPs, then using the concerns of the aquaculture ocmmunities at the design of the study - so that the technology developed will be accepted by the community. then another one will involve interviews with farmers, etc this is a social engagement to ensure uptake of results involved with policy changes. another WP that is on social engagment looking at producers neew ingredients thta can replace antibiotics having many involved. its key that each WP generates new technology and that social engagement is critical to ensure use of the new technologies, that is socially acceptables, and that it is not difficult to use, or has other problems.

sustainale nunatsiavut futures - we are aiming for max knowledge co-production with indigenous communities. WP1 co-led wit megan bailey and is the core social scineces component - we will be looking at how co-producuing knowledge occurs, understanding learning outcomes, that could contribute to transformation on how science happens and hope that the knowledge reaches an international audience as well, to people working on ocean scince around the wolrd


become project - biased towards natural sciences and social sciences connects the modules together. rnages from local ecological knowledge, etc. coatsla communities have an intimate knowledge of their marine environment - we are missing that baseline data - combining mapping seabed. we dont know some of the research questions and this is what makes it transformational, making it opne mind makes it possible to 


joel -  by training i am a climatologist but have been increasingly involved in social sciences projects, and to foci project. contribution on mitigating climate and weather impacts and examines sustainability from many angles. what is innovative is the explicit involvement of the arts. it is becoming clearer that this is what has been missing from earlier discussions. it is difficult to give a sense of urgency, and this can become easier to communicate through the arts using imagination.

2) From the standpoint of that program, how is attention to those SSH issues essential to your contribution to the achievement of the OFI Strategic Objectives?

steohanie - the socila aspects will be impactful for the study. 

our prihect works towards this by engaging partners, communities, and undertsaing how know;edge co production happens. 

joel - ofi strategic objectives -natural sciences and eng excel at creating new knowledge but not in putting into practice. we can learn a lot from SSH on how to mobilize knowledge so that knwoedge is put to use. general thought that generating better info is enough. natural sciences , a lot of data, interpreted, but not in the context of other disciplines. interpretations of natural sciences could benefit from interpretations from social sceinces.

cateline - become project - shellfish is a significant part of employment and culture, and we need to ensure the sustaibaility of ur resoruces, how data is collected can be obscure which can lead to resentment and mistruct, hence why it is important to involve people on that - fishers, community, natural and social scientists - we will be addresing the main goals of ofi in that way. maps are a great tool to communicate and advance ocean literacy.

paul - holistic undertading of ocean sustainability. startaing pojnt for strategic planning and foresighting futures.

Q3) connections b/w phase 1 and 2

joel - it directly builds on results from phase 1 done through modules I and M, which helps us understand misconceptions forecasters have of end users and how that information is used. there are opportuntiies to extend that research with groups such as ssutainable nunatsiavut fisheries and useful lessons for any other prediction centred modules.

melanie - every project is located in place and ultimately has a human connection. how to understand those connections? - social sciences are good at it. i look forward to future suscussions where we can continue to learb more about each otehrs projects

stephanie - some of the work budils on work from module J in phase 1 and what i see in going forward is engagement wht module m with regards to social licensing and aquaculture. this is particularly improtant for one ocean helath's future including what module M has learned and allowing phase 2 push that forward

paul - we have strong linkages with module i - paul, courtenay and charlie, barb, ratana etc and many others. we have built into the application process a lot of stated linkages and referfce to building on various modules. this will be an important challenges for our project and ofi in general and new ones will emerge from discussions we have had today. ther ei s a lot of potential for future connections. 

become - echo whats been told by otehrs, hoping that there are more opportunities like this.

4) What strategies will you employ in pursuing interdisciplinarity within your research programs and in engaging with other programs? 

joel - stay unconfortable - interdisciolinary work foster a lot of anxiety - embracing the sense of impostor syndrome - one caveat is that i have been extremely lucky, SSH people who are respectful, curious, and who share values and a quality working environment.

cateline - natural scientist - getting involve din this makes me feel uncomfortable - i am not familiar enough with the social science apporach. my strategy is to take time to participate, learn and engage, not being afraid of making a fool of myself and hoping that social sciences are hoping to embrace is. 

melanie - engagement and pariticpation causes discomfort - and thinkign about transdisciplinary and what that means when you are making something totally new or a new approach. it is a necessary process and requires a lot of engagement. we have a kick off series online where we are doing a lot of branstorning and thnking about what that means in the context of our project and this has led to a lot of great input. despite of the messiness of the prcess, we do reach soemthing to look forward to.

stepahnie - it is importnant to engage with other coleagues who are in social sciences. this is a good reminder to me to connect with charlie and lucia and the socila licenssing aspect of the work we are doing. we are interedisciplinary in nature, 

paul - integrated work packages are desgned to try to pull the peices togetehr and communicate the integrated knowledge we hope to buiold throughout the project. 

last question - we hope this to be a series of event focused on strengthening SSH within OFI and helping OOFI to acieve its vision of transformation of science and knowledge more generally. with that ambition in  ind, where do you think OFI should be going next?

cateline - multi-inter and transdicsiplinary work in this panel. i learned about this recently, and most has been catalized through the workhops that have been organized. workhops could be built further for all of OFI. greater diversit of the voices we have heard from was ineteryong like youth cooridnators, nunatsiavut government etc. i like the suggestion of HQP networking across discilines so that yo encourage that early on.

joel - emphasize the value of SSH in the larger OFI mission. we should define transformational sceince. when i see this in ofi documents i get a sense that interdiscioplianry research is how they would like to do this. it is hard to remove us from the spehere where we are expeters on and let us recognize our gaps etc, as a natural science who has been co-opted i benefitted from the questions and challenges offered by my SSH colleagues and anything that could encourage that would be a great way to start that. picking different issues and having participants from various disciplines find out a way of addressing them.

paul - ofi has allowed us to start buiding new relationships, and in some ways its just a startiing poont of building relationships within other disciplines. unconfortable with in terms of our own world views etc. i am interested in the international connections - ofi has built a lot of international connections, but I am ineterested in seeing what can we do to deepend conversations with other rojects - buidlign new relationshps and strengthening existing ones. the question of marginalized voices - some have resources and prganizational capacity and we have biases towards organizations with capacity already and how can we give them the opportunuty to reach out to us if they are interested. we shoudl also look into groups and issues that are not covered yet

stephanie - i encourgae events like this, giving exposure to natural sciences researchers to SSH. it would be nice to see some of our partenrs and stakeholders involved in the panels later on. the onus is on us natural sciences in connecting to SSH colleagues. we have to make that for collaboration, otherwise we would not make those connections and have more holistic ideas which would ultimately benefit scicens

melanie - mving towards an intentional community fo practice - how to develop a community of practice, build differente tools in it etc (body of literature on that). in that community, we also need natural sciences, and marginalized communities in non-tolkenistic kind of ways.

Q: SSH - how can we better interface, or work in an intersciplinary way of working with natural sciences?

- Paul - concept of infrastructures = we need to be creative thinking through what can bring us together. a common language can be very helpful, a baseline of understanding in terms of conceptual tools. ability to commiicate in a way what is understandable to each other. we all speak on a different way and we all come from different backgrounds and languages and we need work on a common understanding. and this can be very time-consuming.

- melanie - withing our project we have been thinkign about this too, there is also the issue of jargon, and trying to reduce that and that there are certain words that need to be explained and unpacked. what kinds of tools would need to be developed to bridge that gap. training could be helpful for hqps who are expected to work across disciplines

Q: where should we go next? 

i would like to see moving away from talking. less of SSH speaking to one another and have people coming from other perspectives. in a way that is welcoming and friendly. SSH being able to discuss natural sceinces with PIs etc, like have you thought about this? and exchange some ideas and this is how you can get to firing of new ideas and new collaborations.

Participants were also invited to submit questions to the panel at the time of registration. Some of the topics were [...] 


Written by Mirella Leis, OFI Module I Project Coordinator

Mirella Leis is the Project Coordinator with OFI Module I at Memorial University in St. John's, NL, Canada. 

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