A series spotlighting OST's position at an evolving science-policy interface

By Emma Stone

Tell us about your journey to a career at the nexus of ocean & coastal science and policy - what was an unexpected turn/moment?

I grew up in Minnesota with this deep fascination and curiosity about the ocean, which really defined my life and pursuits from that point onward. I went to school to become a marine biologist, studying earth systems with a focus on marine biology in my undergrad. The most valuable experience in undergrad was getting to do research over multiple summers at Hopkins Marine Station, studying the physiology of a native and an invasive blue mussel species. After a one-year interdisciplinary Master’s degree that took me briefly to Washington, D.C., I went on to get a PhD at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, studying coral physiology. I would say a turning point was when I realized I wanted to see science having a broader impact on society through policy or conservation. I had heard about the Knauss Fellowship when I was in D.C. and started the program immediately after graduating from Scripps. I had the opportunity to work on federal ocean and weather policy for a Senate committee. From there I moved to the House Science Committee as professional staff, helping develop legislation, plan hearings, and interact with a variety of ocean and coastal stakeholders from across the country. One of the most exciting parts for me was getting to hear what different scientists were working on and helping to elevate ocean and coastal issues to Congress. It drove home the importance of having scientists show up to the policy table, because otherwise that information may never get used in a policy context.

What was a formative moment in your career? How does it impact your current work?

There have been many formative moments in my career including seeing policymaking firsthand through the Knauss Fellowship, but a throughline has been continuing to follow my passion for the ocean and seeing where it leads me. Throughout my education and career, the background of what we’re learning about climate change and society’s willingness to tackle this issue has evolved. We’re now confronted daily with climate impacts, and it’s not something people can ignore anymore. There’s also a growing recognition for how the ocean is connected to the climate system, and the impacts of climate change on the ocean. So after the Hill, I went to work for a coastal policy think tank called Urban Ocean Lab, focusing more on developing equitable policy solutions for coastal cities given that coastlines are disproportionately impacted by certain climate impacts like sea level rise, coastal storms and erosion, etc. So much of our population lives along the coasts and it’s not just the so-called “coastal elite” as many people think – there are low-income and historically disadvantaged communities being disproportionately impacted as well. The climate crisis and truly caring about the future of humanity has been a driving force for me as my career has developed.

What are some rewarding and challenging aspects of Ocean Science Trust’s mission driven work as a boundary organization, especially as you spearhead the new mCDR work?

It’s an exciting and challenging time to be working on ocean and coastal issues, especially those that are a bit more contentious like marine carbon dioxide removal (mCDR). mCDR is gaining a lot of attention and funding from the private and philanthropic sectors as a potential climate change solution. It’s really important for a field that is so rapidly accelerating and advancing from a technological and funding standpoint to have a trusted entity (that’d be us!) in a position to look at what the science is actually saying. We need to know whether these emerging technologies are safely, equitably, and efficiently removing CO2 from the ocean or atmosphere. OST’s position allows us to lean into our existing relationships with state agencies and the legislature while using our flexibility to attract more funding to science in order to bring information on a newer topic like mCDR to policy discussions. I think it’s an exciting and challenging role we find ourselves in, getting to sit down with both industry and academic scientists and explore what the experts say about these approaches, and identify research gaps and how to get the academic sector more involved in testing or validating some of these approaches. We need trusted science for our decision makers to make well-informed decisions.
I think our mCDR work very much connects to OST’s mission of bridging the gap between cutting-edge science and sound ocean management and goes beyond that, bringing in other stakeholders like the private sector as well, and perhaps coastal communities down the road, which could be impacted by some of these technologies and could stand to benefit or lose based on how they’re implemented. Not just with mCDR, but other programs like offshore wind as well, OST is able to be responsive to the needs and questions of the state agencies in beginning to understand the potential promise and risks of mCDR, what these approaches would look like in the water, how these systems could be permitted or regulated, and potential impacts on marine ecosystems. There are many questions like these to consider, and I think events like our legislative tours at mCDR R&D sites toward the end of 2023 helped position OST as a neutral party among these very different and valuable stakeholders – industry, academic scientists, and legislative members and staff. Everyone has something to add to the conversation, so acting as a connector for research collaborations, information-sharing, and facilitating questions for eventual policy decisions is really important.

Is there another initiative you’ve been involved in that stands out as reflective of another aspect of OST’s vision and mission?

I’d like to highlight the red urchin fishery project I’m working on with Heidi, which is taking a social science lens to the collapse of the urchin fishery along the North Coast. Social science is an area I don’t have a lot of expertise in but is so valuable, and we’re partnering with experts to look at the social and economic resilience of the commercial red urchin fishery and how to rebuild after the collapse of the red urchin fishery and the bull kelp forest upon which it relies. What this project recognizes is the importance of the human aspect in terms of the experiences and perspectives of the fishery members, mainly divers, who have spent decades going out on the water and diving every day and watching their industry almost vanish within a short span. They’ve had tremendous bravery and resilience in the face of their livelihoods changing. So this project is not just about elevating science as a pathway toward rebuilding the kelp forest and the red urchin fishery, but elevating the knowledge and ideas of the fishery community. We’re getting to engage directly with divers and will be hosting a workshop soon in order to hear directly from the community. I think this has been a valuable learning opportunity on the importance of relationship building and trust building when engaging a community.

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