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Rhiannon Jones’ NERC-funded marine policy placement with Defra and the G7 FSOI

11 May 2022

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Rhiannon Jones

The Ocean sustains and supports life on Earth through a myriad of inter-related processes, mechanisms, and feedbacks. Microscopic photosynthesising organisms that live in the surface ocean produce up to 80% of the oxygen we breathe (Source: NOAA), whilst around 3 billion people rely on seafood as a primary source of protein (Source: World Wildlife Fund).

Our relationship with the ocean is complex and vital, and as we continue to observe ocean-climate change at an unprecedented rate with multiple threats to the system we rely on, the need for action on a global level to understand and protect the ocean is growing.

The year 2021 marked the start of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, a global program with 10 Challenges. The Ocean Decade focuses on furthering our understanding of both the ocean system and our impact upon it, whilst capacity building and driving developments towards our sustainable use of marine resources. Alongside this, the UK spearheaded the 30 by30 Global Ocean Alliance initiative, which aims to protect at least 30 % of the global ocean by 2030. Currently 71 countries spanning all continents have committed to the initiative.

The UK is engaged in the UN Ocean Decade through several organisations. The Government Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) have a dedicated UN Ocean Decade Action policy team, who work closely with the Future of the Seas and Oceans Initiative (FSOI), a G7 initiative with dedicated coordinators from the UK and France.

As part of my PhD program on the NERC DTP INSPIRE program, I am funded to undertake a 3-month policy placement. The placement must be sought by the student, and so through contacts within my supervisory team I reached out to several people within Defra and partners outlining my interests and aims for a placement. I vocalised my wish to work at the interface of science and policy, develop my communication skills in this space, and better understand how these organisations influence the research we do. The Ocean Decade Action Team agreed to take me on, partnering with the G7 FSOI, to place me at the interface of Ocean Decade science policy and diplomacy, in the context of the G7 and wider UN.

I acted as an interface between the Defra team and the FSOI, providing briefings for Defra on UK Ocean activities in the space of ocean observation, ocean action and capacity building projects that focus on improving the accessibility and inclusivity in the marine space. Specific tasks included participating in a UK-led G7 Ocean Decade Plan Workshop, and writing up the follow-up internal G7 report. You can find more information on this, and read the public Executive Summary here. I was thrown in the deep end, acting as a chair for G7 discussions on how to drive capacity building and partnerships with underrepresented nations, and co-leading the organisation of an international webinar for Early Career Ocean Professionals on the opportunities for involvement in the Ocean Decade that brought together over 350 participants.

Placement outputs ranged from short paragraphs sent to my Defra manager to summarise key UK science programs, to coordinating a COP26 event with 9 international partner organisations on the future of ocean observations. I communicated with the Royal Society, Challenger Society and several other science focused organisations on priorities for ocean action across the Decade, and acted as a voice for Early Career Researchers during meetings with the Defra/FSOI team.

This placement provided huge opportunities for me to develop my communication skills, build confidence and experience in engaging with key decision makers, expand my knowledge of international marine policy, and show me the quick pace of working required within the policy world! I am incredibly thankful to my two managers and the wider team at Defra and the FSOI for pushing and challenging me, and opening up many doors for me.

Out of this placement, I was offered a three-month internship with NERC, working on the NERC commitment to be a net zero organisation by 2040. NERC are responsible for the UK’s largest research vessels, which facilitate much of the ocean-going research the UK carries out. NERC are seeking ways to meet net zero carbon emissions whilst maintaining the world-leading science they oversee, and I am tasked with providing them with policy recommendations in this space. You can read more about UK Net Zero Ocean Capacity here in this summary report.

By undertaking these projects, I have gained invaluable insight into the national and international priorities for ocean science, made fantastic connections across the international science and policy world, and have developed communication and diplomacy skills. Going forward, this skill development will benefit my ongoing PhD work, and provide me with an excellent foundation in academia or public policy.

Carrying out a policy placement has opened up further exciting opportunities, both in academia and policy, and provided me with a valuable perspective on marine research outside of my PhD project. I really would encourage anyone with the opportunity to go for it. Outside of the NERC DTP funded placements there are other avenues. The Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute works closely with Public Policy|Southampton to continue to create secondment opportunities for University of Southampton staff and students in the policy space. Public Policy|Southampton also do excellent work facilitating studentships in the policy space, such as through their Policy Associate Scheme.

My thanks go to NERC who funded my INSPIRE PhD placement.


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