Working with the Life Sciences; “Whose aspirations? Whose achievements?”

The life sciences have made major contributions to our knowledge and understanding, but utilising that knowledge for maximum benefit often requires different skills.   Many of those skills can be found in the social sciences.  Below are some examples in the general area of ecology, climate change and conservation where science has be projected into other dimensions, often resulting in behavioural changes and policy development.

Coral reefs are the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, and are the most under threat from climate change. Coral reefs provide an environment from which 6 million tons of fish are caught annually. This not only provides an income to national and international fishing fleets, but also for local communities, which in addition rely on the local fish stocks to provide nutritional sustenance.  The reefs also act as barriers, protecting the land and an estimated half a billion people who live within 100 km of reefs. Economists estimate that the reefs are worth several billions of dollars in the Caribbean alone. The coral-reef ecosystem forms part of a “seascape” that includes land-based ecosystems such as mangroves and coastal forests, and represents an integrated system for conservation and management. Coral reefs throughout the world are under severe challenges from a variety of anthropogenic and environmental factors including overfishing, destructive fishing practices, coral bleaching, ocean acidification, sea-level rise, algal blooms, agricultural run-off, coastal and resort development, marine pollution, increasing coral diseases, invasive species, and hurricane/cyclone damage.

In some parts of Indonesia there are no large corals to act as refuges for fish and invertebrates or defences against climate extremes. Social science techniques have been used to show that coral mining has been used to build foundations for huts by the Bajau people in that part of the world. The good news is that coral extraction is now illegal in that area, and the practice is falling into disfavour by the local populations.

Capacity building by engagement has been used in many communities where there are inherent and long-standing challenges to sustainability, for example in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), indigenous community-based conservation, waste management, health and disaster preparedness.

One example of this approach is in the second largest barrier reef in the world – the Meso-American Barrier Reef, stretching from Mexico through Belize to Guatemala and Honduras.  A key outcome has been that three NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) TASTE (Toledo Association for Sustainable Tourism and Empowerment), TIDE (Toledo Institute for Development and Environment) and Friends of Nature have been incorporated into a single self-governing organisation, which spans four MPAs (Marine Protected Ares) in Southern Belize.  This means that areas between MPAs which were subject to illegal fishing activity can now be monitored and policed. The merger will enable assessment and enforcement across four different MPAs (Gladden Spit Marine Reserve, Laughing Bird National Park, the Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve and the Port Honduras Marine Reserve).  Another example is in Jamaica, where implementation of co-operative management plans can allow reef ecosystems to withstand major physical effects of climate change. This has positive implications for sustainability of the communities reliant on the reefs for their livelihoods.  Both these examples have important economic impacts.

Education of all stakeholders is an important element in linking the life sciences to the social sciences en route to policy changes. Education plans can be over-simplified – What is the point of stressing the importance of education and more responsive policymaking if the real problem is a poorly developed cultural conception for long-term futures?

This situation presents us with two challenges, one practical and one moral. The practical challenge is to provide information at the appropriate level to demonstrate how certain actions–for example, “no-take” fishing zones–can help to achieve aspirations. This intervention needs to address local economic and social concerns about the reefs, particularly their costs and benefits, and the range of options presently available.

The moral challenge is to reassess our own assumptions regarding people such as the Bajau and to acknowledge their rights and capacity for self-determination. We need to hold in greater esteem the diversity of social contributions that local people can make, and to maintain respect for a wider range of cultural values that can legitimately inform life choices about coral-reef sustainability.

A draconian approach would be to seek to alter the aspirations of people such as the Bajau in the interests of both the wider community and the wider economy. Is doing so not to treat the people who hold such values as the means rather than as the ends? Who is to say that we should seek to change their ecologically destructive practices as a way of protecting them from themselves? Should we not respect their own rights and capacities to determine their own fate? The role of indigenous communities in natural-resource management is complex and easily oversimplified, as it has been with the Bajau in Indonesia. The questions “Whose aspirations? Whose achievements?” will continue to resonate in issues of sustainability and conservation. And we do not have much time.

New global rights discourses and international law points towards sustainable relationships between different cultural groups and the environment.  As the political reality of climate change becomes more evident, the valuable tools linking the life sciences and social sciences need to be preserved in the face of increasing pressures. This should help to transform the development of resources, for example in Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean to the preservation of resources worldwide.

Professor M James C Crabbe

University of Bedfordshire.

Selected References

Chircop, A. 1998. Introduction to capacity building.  Ocean and Coastal Management 38 (1): 67-68.

Crabbe, M.J.C., Karaviotis, S. and Smith, D.J. (2004) Preliminary comparison of three coral reef sites in the Wakatobi Marine National Park (S.E. Sulawesi, Indonesia): Estimated recruitment dates compared with Discovery Bay, Jamaica.  Bulletin of Marine Science 74, 469-476.

Crabbe, M.J.C. (2006) Challenges for sustainability in cultures where regard for the future may not be present. Sustainability: Science, Practice & Policy. 2, 57-61.

Crabbe, M.J.C., Martinez, E., Garcia, C., Chub, J., Castro, L. and Guy, J. (2009) Identifying management needs for coral reef ecosystems.  Sustainability: Science, Practice & Policy. 5, 42-47.

Crabbe, M.J.C. (2010) Coral Ecosystem Resilience, Conservation and Management on the Reefs of Jamaica in The Face of Anthropogenic Activities and Climate Change. Diversity 2, 881-896.

Crabbe, M.J.C., Martinez, E., Garcia, C., Chub, J., Castro, L. and Guy, J. (2010) Is capacity building important in policy development for sustainability? A case study using action plans for sustainable Marine Protected Areas in Belize. Society and Natural Resources. 23, 181-190.

Crabbe, M.J.C. (2010) Sustainable tourism and management for coral reefs: preserving diversity and plurality in a time of climate change. Journal of Service Science and Management 3, 249-255.

James Crabbe

Professor M J C Crabbe MA, BSc, MSc, PhD, DSc, FSB, FRSC, FRGS, FRSA, FLS, FHEA, FIMarEST, CMarSci

As Executive Dean of the Faculty of Creative Arts, Technologies and Science and Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Bedfordshire, I work on the boundaries of social science, science, and the arts & humanities. I am also a Supernumerary Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford University, and Visiting Professor at the University of Reading, and at Beijing Normal University and at the International Business Faculty of BNU in Zhuhai in China.

My research, spanning biological, environmental and social sciences, has resulted in over 150 research publications in refereed journals, 51 books, book chapters and articles in books, 14 items of commercial software, and numerous invitations as Plenary speaker at international conferences. In the last year, I have contributed to three major international reports on the enviroment and climate change

I have worked closely with many of the UK research councils, am an Advisor to the Earthwatch Institute, Patron of Coral Cay Conservation, Member of Arts Interlink, Trustee of the Guild of Benevolence of IMarEST, Chair of Governors of Central Bedfordshire Further Education College Corporation, and Chairman of Trustee Directors of the Charity for Access Ability and Communications Technology (AACT for children).

I am a member of the Council of University Deans of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities and on the Executive Committee of the UK Deans of Science.

I am a SCUBA dive instructor level 1, and have produced several classical recordings, one of which won an award, and have worked in BBC TV and Radio, and on the Science and Art programme of the Wellcome Trust.

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