How might marine scientists and historians benefit from collaboration?

Note: The following text first appeared in issue 2 of Deep-Sea Life, an informal publication for INDEEP, the International network for the scientific investigation of deep-sea ecosystems. Get your copy here. Since I first wrote this piece, the Journal of Environmental History has published a response by HMAP on the Marine Forum which can be found here. Readers interested in this topic may also enjoy reading a recent blog post by fellow ICHO member Samantha Muka: “Salvaging Historical Ocean Data; the role of the archive in current scientific debates

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAA sea change is taking place in the history of science and in environmental history. Many historians have begun to acknowledge that the marine sciences represent a largely untapped subject. Some scholars have been calling for the study of the marine sciences for decades. The first international congress on the history of oceanography took place in 1966, and the first issue of the History of Oceanography Newsletter was issued in January 1989. Yet, many of the scholars who laid the foundations for the study of the history of the marine sciences were scientists themselves; their passion for the history of the marine sciences developed from a passion for marine science. Until recently, the history of the marine sciences remained an outlier in the scholarship of historians. A quick scan of the conference programs for the meetings of the American Society for Environmental History, the Canadian Society for the History and Philosophy of Science, or the meeting of the International Congress for the History of Science Technology and Medicine shows that a change is underway. Increasingly, the oceans are a topic for historians, who are not immune to the changing tides of public interest. As climate change, ocean acidification, marine resource depletion, and pollution become hot topics of public debate, historians are beginning to shift their attention to the seas. The January 1st, 2013 issue of the journal Environmental History featured a forum on marine environmental history. As environmental historian Nancy Langston writes in her “editor’s note”:

It’s not always easy for historians to participate in scholarly and policy debates over marine management. Scientists, policymakers, and historians speak different languages and control different financial resources, which makes collaboration challenging. When a scientist wins a grant and invites a historian to participate in a research project, what the scientist needs from that historian often differs from what the historian wants to contribute. Historians excel at problematizing scientific approaches to knowledge building, but “Well …it’s complicated” is rarely a useful answer when a policymaker asks a question. Nevertheless, it is critical for historians to participate—and participate usefully—in interdisciplinary marine research. Without a sense of history, how can we hope to understand, much less restore, marine ecosystems?” [1]

Scientists have begun to come to similar conclusions. The recently published report of the Subcommittee on Ocean Science and Technology of the National Science and Technology Council, “Science for an Ocean Nation: Update of the Ocean Research Priorities Plan” notes under “research priority 2”:

Understanding human impacts on marine ecosystems, whether positive (restoration) or negative (degradation), will require integrating traditional ocean science with socioeconomic science. […] Restoration science as a body of principles and best practices is rapidly growing in importance and relevance to our Nation’s coastal resilience and sustainability. To determine and predict society’s impact on marine ecosystems, social and economic factors (e.g., land, water, and energy use; coastal and watershed development; resource use perception; cultural history) that determine how society views and uses marine ecosystems should be assessed and modeled.” [2]

As previously noted, the pioneers of marine science history were marine scientists themselves. Writing in 1923, Sir William A. Herdman, former professor of oceanography at the University of Liverpool wrote in the introduction to his text Founders of Oceanography and their Work: An Introduction to the Science of the Sea:

It is not too soon to let the young university student, and the intelligent public in general, know that the oceans present wonderful phenomena and profoundly interesting problems to the observer and the investigator, and that a science of the sea having it’s roots in the remote past has of recent years developed greatly and is now growing fast into an organized body of interrelated knowledge.” [3]

Sir Herdman’s call to action is even more urgent today than it was then. The future of our oceans depends on the successful communication of marine science to the public. However, efforts at educating the public about the oceans are not recent. In the 19th century, naturalists produced monograph narratives of scientific voyages for public consumption. Writing in 1859, the celebrated marine naturalist Edward Forbes noted in the introduction to his text, The Natural History of the European Seas:

Our volumes may be, and often, from the very nature of their themes, are, comparatively dry and heavy. Yet the adding an ear, or even a grain of wheat to the great granary of human knowledge, whence the brains of future generations are to be nourished, is some small service to the good cause of enlightenment.” [4]

While it is true that the texts that Forbes created in the 19th century did not require interdisciplinary collaboration, over time, historians and scientists have continued to move further apart from one another. As one scholarly discipline now turns new sights upon another, a widened public, interested in oceans, oceanography, and their history, is being created. This is a moment in which fruitful interdisciplinary collaboration is becoming possible. What forms actual collaboration between members of these two disciplines may be forged waits to be seen. But, surely we can agree that it would be good to foster the growing conversation across the disciplines. In the words of marine environmental historian Christine Keiner, “the stakes are too high to allow the inevitable misunderstandings that mark all interdisciplinary efforts to stand. In this era, no discipline is an island.” [5]


1. Nancy Langston, “Editor’s Note,” Environmental History, Vol. 18, No. 1, (2013).

2. Subcommittee on Ocean Science and Technology of the National Science and Technology Council, “Science for an Ocean Nation: Update of the Ocean Research Priorities Plan,” (February, 2013) p. 50.

3. Sir William A. Herdman, Founders of Oceanography and their Work: An Introduction to the Science of the Sea, (London: Edward Arnold & Co., 1923,) p. v.

4. Edward Forbes, The Natural History of the European Seas, (London: John Van Voorst, 1859,) p. 2.

5. Christine Keiner, “How Scientific Does Marine Environmental Science Need to Be?” Environmental History, Vol. 18, No. 1, (2013).

1, (2013).

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