How can science help save our marine environment?

Providing input to the June 2019 G20 Summit in Japan, the S20 science academies highlighted climate change and marine plastic waste as key threats

S20 memorial photo with Prime Minister
S20 memorial photo with Prime Minister Shinzō Abe in the middle and Minister of State for Science and Technology Policy Takuya Hirai to the right.

In 2021, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO will launch the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development to raise a call to action for conservation of marine ecosystems.

Oceans, which cover 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, are our life-blood – yet we are not careful stewards of our precious waters. Data from the Global Oxygen Network Oceans suggests that our oceans are getting “hot, sour and breathless.” Further, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2014 report found that oceans have absorbed 93 percent of the global warming excess heat. Additionally, about 8 million tons of plastics enter our oceans every year, according to recent estimates, turning them soon into a “plastic soup.”

G20 science academies to provide policy advice to governments

In 2016, as a side meeting to the G20 Summit, the Science20 (S20) meeting was established, comprised of the national science academies of the G20 countries. This year’s host nation is Japan, and a series of ministerials and side meetings including the G20 Nation Leaders Summit in Osaka on June 28 and 29 will be held.

On March 6, the Science Council of Japan hosted the S20 in Tokyo with the theme of “Threats to Marine Ecosystems and Conservation of the Marine Environment – with Special Attention to Climate Change and Marine Plastic Waste.”

Identifying prominent topics in marine science

Understanding science trends helps to support evidence-based policies. Our reports on sustainability science and disaster science are a few examples of our engagement on sustainability. To identify trends in marine science, we used Elsevier’s tool SciVal based on data from Scopus.

Main recommendations from the S20 meeting

The S20 outcomes, summarized below, contribute to the The Ministerial Meeting on Energy Conversion for Sustainable Growth and the Global Environment as well as to the main G20 nation leaders summit. The full final statement of S20 meeting is on the homepage of Science Council Japan.

The G20 Academies of Sciences calls for:

  1. Use of expert, evidence-based advice and assessment using an ecosystem-based approach during further development of marine resources so as to minimize undesirable impacts on the marine environment;
  2. Redoubling actions aiming to reduce stressors on coastal and marine ecosystems such as climate change, overfishing and pollution;
  3. Establishment of more recycling and energy efficient practices at national, city and local levels, through stakeholder collaboration and science-based target setting and its follow-up;
  4. Capacity building for both essential research infrastructures (including research vessels and remote and autonomous observation and survey capabilities) and human capital through education;
  5. Establishment of an improved data storage and management system that ensures open access by scientists globally; and
  6. Sharing of information gained through research activities carried out under extensive and multinational collaboration, to expedite a comprehensive understanding of the global ocean and its dynamics.

Marine science does not have a simple journal classification in the All Science Journal Classification (ASJC); it belongs in part to both aquatic science and oceanography. We therefore used a keyword search with suggestions from subject experts to give an overview of the area, using keywords such as “ocean” and “marine” in combination with “science,” “policy” and “ecology,” as well as more specific keywords such as “plastic waste” and “acidification.” Some interesting conclusions could be drawn:

  • During 2013-17, marine science publications have grown annually at around 7 percent on average, which is faster than the overall growth in scientific publications below 2 percent.
  • G20 member states are responsible for about 80 percent of the publication output in the field. The top 5 contributing countries are the United States, China, UK, Germany and France.
  • The field is, as expected, international in nature. Most G20 member states have an international collaboration rate in the field of more than half of the publications.

The science community is further responding to urgent topics, such as marine plastics and climate change. Using the recently developed SciVal Topic Prominence, where Scopus publications are clustered into topics using direct citations, we  looked at which topics show the most momentum, or prominence. Prominence is not based on volume of publications or growth rate but on citations, view counts and how cited the journals are, and it has been seen to correlate with funding.

Prominence is computed from three variables: citation count in year n to papers published in year n and  n-1, Scopus Views Count in year n to papers published in n and n-1, and average CiteScore for year n.

Interestingly, but sadly unsurprising, the topic plastics; marine pollution; microplastic particles has the most momentum in marine science. This word cloud shows the most relevant keywords for this topic.

Word cloud on current research on marine plastic waste. (Source: SciVal Topic Prominence)

While the momentum is strong, the area is relatively small: in 2013 there were 123 publications on this topic, growing to about 484 in 2017; that’s a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 41 percent. Relating to climate change, for instance, the topic ocean acidification also has high momentum. It would be of interest to look deeper into these trends to understand how national priorities align with global challenges.

Stressing the urgency – highlights from the S20 discussions

In the public part of the S20 meeting, Prof. Biliana Cicin-Sain, President of the Global Ocean Forum, stated that changes in the climate have significant impacts on the oceans, including ocean warming, acidification, deoxygenation, sea level rise and altering currents, all of which have accelerated in recent years. The G20 nations have already experienced significant impacts on their coasts, economies and people. Beyond G20, she said, these trends call for urgent action and should be addressed at all levels of policy for our planetary health. Further, she mentioned the importance of disaster science to understand and mitigate against risks.

Prof. Yoshihisa Shirayama of the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, the key local organizer of the Japan S20, explained that while the fragile states of oceans are getting attention, there are knowledge gaps. Only 5 percent of the ocean surface has been mapped in high resolution, 99 percent of habitable marine areas lack basic biodiversity knowledge for their management, and there could be more than 1 million marine species that are still unknown to science.

Dr. Vladimir Ryabinin, Executive Secretary of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC-UNESCO), spoke about the current level of development of oceanography. He stated that the ocean science and even observations remain largely voluntary, while starting to support legally-binding treaties and address existential issues. Meanwhile, the science remains grossly under-resourced and needs urgent mainstreaming.

Planning of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2012-2030) is underway. A number of breakthroughs are foreseen, namely in ocean mapping, observations, data management, ecosystem knowledge, ocean and climate prediction, warning systems for ocean hazards, capacity development and ocean literacy. Progress in those areas is expected to enable capacity in marine spatial planning, coastal zone management, adaptation and mitigation of climate change, and strengthened ocean governance, towards meeting requirements of both developed and developing countries.

Elsevier’s special collection – and deep dive into marine data

To support the S20 discussions with insights into current issues in marine environment and policies, Elsevier’s Publishers for geography, planning and development (Sara Bebbington) and oceanography (Pablo Secades) invited their editors to curate a special issue from across our ScienceDirect content.

The Chief Editor of Marine Policy, Associate Prof. Quentin Hanich, who leads the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS), worked with Nippon Foundation/Nereus Program Policy Director Dr. Yoshitaka Ota and Program Manager Dr. Wilf Swartz and Nereus Fellows to select articles for a special issue from Elsevier’s journals of Environmental Pollution, Marine Policy, Marine Pollution Bulletin and Ocean & Coastal Management. Topics include marine pollution, climate change impact on oceans, UN Sustainable Development Goals, coastal management, fisheries management, and high seas governance, with articles also dedicated to highlighting the latest developments on these issues from Japan.

The online issue – Threats to Marine Ecosystems and Conservation of the Marine Environment — is freely available until the end of 2019.


The message from the S20 meeting seems clear, as echoed by Dr. Hanich in the S20 Elsevier special collection: coastal states and beyond face unprecedented societal and governance challenges due to increasing and cumulative impacts on our marine ecosystems. Ocean management is complex with trade-offs between conservation, societal and sectoral interests, which often must be addressed through international cooperation due to the transboundary nature of our oceanic ecosystems. To achieve sustainable development and conservation goals, we must improve the integration of science into marine policy, with an increasing need for innovative multidisciplinary approaches that provide insights into social, cultural, economic and political concerns.

S20 was a call to action, as Prof. Cicin-Sain urged in her keynote:

Trust the scientific findings that have emerged already, and support your governments to act on the ocean and climate nexus.



Louis Levi Xu
Written by

Louis Levi Xu

Written by

Louis Levi Xu

Louis Levi Xu is a Marketing & Analytics Intern in the Global Strategic Networks group at Elsevier in Japan. He is a Canadian student at the University of Ottawa, in his third year of Communication and Media Studies, specializing in organizational communication. As part of his internship, he did analysis on the G20 countries’ academic output and collaborations in marine science. Previously he served as a project assistant at the Telfer School of Management in 2018. He has a strong interest in commercial aviation and how it connects the world.

Anders Karlsson, PhD
Written by

Anders Karlsson, PhD

Written by

Anders Karlsson, PhD

Dr. Anders Karlsson is Vice President of Global Strategic Networks at Elsevier. With Tokyo as base, he covers the Asia Pacific Region. He has a background in science diplomacy, having headed the Embassy of Sweden Office of Science and Innovation in Tokyo for five years, as well as in academia, having served as Professor of Quantum Photonics at the Royal Institute of Technology – KTH in Sweden for 10 years. He has a PhD in Electrical Engineering, and a MSc in Engineering Physics, also from KTH. At Elsevier, he has been engaged in a variety of projects, such as Elsevier’s reports on Sustainability Science, Disaster Science and Artificial Intelligence. He is a member of Elsevier’s sustainability board as well as the Vice-Chair of the Japan branch of the International Association of Science, Technology and Medical Publishers – STM.


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