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28 Jul 2017
Getting below the surface
Mapping the gaps between expert and public understanding of the ocean and marine conservation.

A new report presents the research outcomes of a project, sponsored by Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, focusing the need to develop communications strategies to build public understanding of and support for marine conservation.

Communicating about the ocean and marine conservation in ways that increase public knowledge and drive support requires understanding how the public thinks about the ocean. The report analyses public understandings of the ocean and compares these patterns of thinking to the views of those who study and work on these issues.

Understanding how experts and the public think about marine issues – and identifying the gaps between them – helps us predict how the public will respond to communications. A detailed view of public understanding also shows how we can begin to reposition – or reframe – messages to move the public conversation forward and create a context of opinion in which meaningful policy change is possible.

The study is not about what people say, for example, in response to polls. The analysis presented goes deeper to document how people think. The report begins by describing how those who study and work on ocean and marine conservation in the United Kingdom think about marine issues. This account constitutes experts’ shared understanding of what the ocean is; how it matters for human wellbeing; how it is changing, how these changes threaten our wellbeing and what can be done to address these problems. This is what can be called an ‘untranslated story’, and it represents the key ideas that need to be communicated to the public through a reframing strategy.

Afterwards, the report focus the shared understandings, assumptions and patterns of reasoning that members of the British public draw upon to think about the ocean. Many of these understandings found undermine the public's concern about threats to marine health. For example, the ocean is assumed to be so vast and expansive that it is largely immune to substantial negative change. The public also frequently thinks about the ocean at the surface level only. These ways of thinking lead people to underestimate the kinds of profound and enduring changes that are happening below that surface.

The final part of the report identifies places where expert and public understandings overlap and also where they diverge. It identifies the challenges that communicators face in moving the public conversation forward on marine issues. An innovative comprehensive communication strategy is possible to develop by following the to-do list oulined in the report.

The subject of the study is also one of the key dimensions of Responsible Research and Innovation. EurOcean and 13 other partners are currently supporting the implementation of RRI in the European marine sphere through the H2020 MARINA project. 

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