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Marloes Kraan: How can we as marine social scientists become more relevant?

By Lillian Saul and Nova Almine

Marloes Kraan is a marine social scientist, working as a researcher at the applied research institute Wageningen Economic Research and the Environmental Policy Group at Wageningen University, the Netherlands. Dr. Kraan is also the co-director of the Centre for Maritime Research (MARE) in Amsterdam, and a member of the Strategic Initiative on the Human Dimension in the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES). She also co-chaired the Working Group on Social Indicators, which focuses on improving the integration of social sciences in ICES Ecosystem Overviews and integrated ecosystem assessments through the development of culturally relevant social indicators. She is interested in contributing to increasing inter- or transdisciplinarity in maritime research, interactive fisheries governance, and improving the applicability of social science in fisheries and policy.


On January 19, during the OFI People and the Ocean Speaker Series, Dr. Kraan talked about the role and relevance of marine social scientists in today’s world seas and oceans governance. She presented the ongoing developments such as the attention on the ‘social dimension of fisheries’ in the UN policy and the increasing number of marine social science research and provided examples of the applied social science work she was involved in within the European context. She also talked about the role of marine social scientists as a bridge between policymakers and academic scientists and the urgency to act. In her talk, she posed a question: how can we as marine social scientists become as relevant as possible to make a difference before it is too late?

Through the course of her talk, Dr. Kraan brought up key challenges, successes, and contradictions in the mission to make social science work more relevant to policymaking. Dr. Kraan noted that while demand for marine social science is increasing, social science takes time and can be slower than the pace it is needed. She explained the incredible depth and quality of the social science research being produced and its immense potential to be integrated into policymaking, but that it is mostly in academic and not lay-people language. Therefore, who is equipped to understand social science research, aside from those who are already experts? She referenced the MARE publication series, containing social science knowledge on fisheries which “could fill the Dublin library” with their remarkable insights—but who is reading these insights? Who is using these insights? On the other hand, positions open daily in government agencies for trained fisheries social scientists. Social scientists, once hopeful about the role they could play in governance, have finally, on some level, brought their dreams to reality. Kraan told an inspiring story about her own career, where she created a position for herself in a related institution where her work as an anthropologist was needed and valued. These topics are urgent and there is recognition of the need for social science in addressing such urgent topics. But in Dr. Kraan’s words: “we need to speed up.” The pace at which research happens can be far slower than the rate of development and political change. And for fishing people, the urgency of these matters could not be more prescient.

Furthermore, there can be a barrier between us as social scientists and those in the policy realm. Dr. Kraan’s plan to address this barrier? Let’s build a bridge! We agree with the idea of creating networks and bridging activities—but we need to be more specific on which actions to take for this bridging to occur. Should we (marine social scientists) initiate the move to reach out to policymakers or vice versa, or both meet halfway? We believe that marine social scientists have done their part in research, collaboration, and communication. However, the government should also do its part. Importantly, how do we build this bridge? Well for one, there are disciplines which already have sturdy and well-traveled bridges between their own academic fields and the policy world, like economics and natural sciences. First perhaps we can take a look at what they are doing. Then, we can move onto some bridging activities to aid in the construction. These include building networks—formal and informal, translating messages into non-academic terms, and understanding the real constraints and contexts of government. For example, we cannot expect to build bridges with materials we do not have. Overall, scientists should maintain open lines with the government, offering to communicate research to policymakers by giving talks at meetings, or chatting on the phone. We can also offer to form a team around real-world issues, which might make policy makers’ jobs easier, instead of more difficult. After all, transdisciplinary research requires collaboration—so, let’s collaborate, government included.

Everyone has a part to play. Now, that doesn’t mean all scientists need to form a line, preparing to throw themselves blindly off the cliffs of academia towards the sea of government politics. Moreover, Dr. Kraan assures us: no one is downplaying the importance of scientists who want to crank out brilliant books from a small dark cave on the side of a distant mountain top. Only—these people might want to find intermediaries, so their work can be incorporated and operationalized out in the real world. Maybe they want to befriend a bird who will carry their message down off the mountain, eventually to find its way to the gates of that bridge we constructed. Not everyone has to cross the bridge or hang out on the bridge—but everyone should be aware of that bridge. Lastly, Dr. Kraan reminds us: keep an open mind, be creative, and don’t forget to make jokes!

There is often the impression that social science research isn’t important, what Dr. Kraan calls “fun research.” As research students, we know that social science research is important, and sometimes not that fun. For both of us, this research becomes personal due to our past experiences. One of us gave up her job in the commercial fisheries to work on problems that are deeply painful and frustrating for her because she knew that fishing communities including her own were seriously at stake. The other one left her home across the world in the Philippines where she worked in the natural sciences and planted corals to pursue social science studies. Therefore, she can see the importance of interdisciplinary work and the interrelatedness of all components of social-ecological systems.

Ultimately, it shows the privilege of those in power to determine whether or not the struggles of real human beings are “relevant,” framed by divisions based on disciplinary background. Social science research is popular—sure. It is relevant—absolutely. Globally trendy? 100%. But ultimately, governments are going to have to do more than make promises, or little additions to laws here and there to actually include social objectives in management. Perhaps one key message, that social science needs to speed up, isn’t the same key message that we would like to communicate to governments. Governments need to actually do what they say they are doing and start being accountable. Hiring a social scientist is great. But listening to social science is a timely process. Social science work may be slow, but it is there for government to draw on. Rather than rushing to solve the problem, government needs to take a step back and ask themselves how many fishing communities will have gone extinct on their watches. If the answer makes them uncomfortable, then it is imperative that they do more to incorporate insights from social sciences in their decision making.


Lillian Saul is a researcher at Memorial University studying fisheries governance in Newfoundland and Labrador with a focus on inshore and small-boat fisheries. Her research explores opportunities and challenges to informing policymaking in this province with relevant principles, as outlined by the Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries. She is also an active commercial fishing person! Lillian would be satisfied spending the rest of her days fishing on the water and contributing to learning about and solving complex problems in fisheries on shore. Ultimately, she hopes her work can celebrate the invaluable knowledge and vitality of fishing communities in Atlantic Canada and beyond.


Nova Almine is a graduate student researcher at Memorial University studying small-scale fisheries focusing on the value chain of anchovy fisheries in Thailand. Her work explores the issues and concerns affecting the small-scale anchovy fisheries and within the value chain. Before coming to Newfoundland, she enjoyed Scuba diving while maintaining a coral garden back in the Philippines to help improve local fish stocks and healthy oceans. She hopes that her work will bring light to the importance of small-scale anchovy fisheries through their contributions to food security and livelihoods, especially in developing countries.

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