MUN prof’s project shortlisted for funding

Andrew Robinson
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Ocean sciences initiative among seven proposals picked from 280

A project to fund research devoted to tackling issues of global importance has recognized a proposal led by a Memorial University ocean sciences professor as one of its seven shortlisted finalists.

Paul Snelgrove and a team of researchers are proposing to undertake a global-initiative that would focus on key biological and physical processes in marine ecosystems as a means to develop better models for predicting and sustaining their ecological and economic value.

The fact Snelgrove and his team is among those shortlisted for the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research’s (CIFAR) first Global Calls for Ideas is an achievement in and of itself. CIFAR, an independent research institute, received 280 proposals.

“We didn’t see the other proposals of course, but knowing the calibre of the ones that went forward and the calibre of the people involved, it’s a great honour to be put in with that group,” said Snelgrove.

Snelgrove’s proposal is an extension of his work on the Census of Marine Life, a 10-year project that combined the efforts of 2,700 scientists from more than 80 countries. Work on that project concluded in 2010.

“As that was winding down, I was asked by the steering committee of the census to form a little research group to think about what’s next,” explained Snelgrove.

The proposed project’s full title is “Life in a Changing Ocean: New Perspectives on Marine Functions and Services.” The project was shopped around, according to Snelgrove, eventually attracting CIFAR’s attention.

“We ended up writing a letter of intent, which is what has put us into this group of finalists.”

Snelgrove said that while it is widely understood the ocean is filled with valuable species, there remains many other players within the marine ecosystem whose role is not fully understood.

“What that means is we’re not very good at predicting what happens when, for example, a population disappears, or if the ocean is warm, or if they acidify, which we’re already seeing evidence of in both cases. It raises a question of what’s going to happen to the species, and what (that means) for the way the ocean works.”

According to Snelgrove, a big idea that has been attracting attention in the world of ecology is the notion that living organisms provide functions and services benefiting humans.

“There’s a big effort underway, both in terrestrial and in marine ecosystems, trying to understand the role that different species play in delivering those services. As a quick example, if you have small amounts of sewage flowing through wetlands, the wetlands will absorb that, break it down, and there’s no problem.

“If you put in too much sewage, you fill the wetland. Then you have to build a sewage treatment plant and then you have to pay people to man that sewage treatment plant. The point is nature does a lot of things for us at no cost, and so we want to understand how that works and what role different species play in that process.

Individual projects are underway throughout the world that can potentially help feed into the project’s focus, though Snelgrove goes on to point out the question at hand is too big for those projects to adequately address.

“For example, I have students in my lab working on one aspect, a very small aspect of that question,” he said. “You really do need a big team to tackle something this big.”

Millions of dollars will be required to realize what Snelgrove’s team intends to accomplish, given the expensive nature of conducting research at sea.

“Ships can cost, easily, $20,000 a day to operate, and so it gets expensive quickly,” he said. “Because it becomes a very expensive problem, the only way to tackle it effectively is through a real team of investigators, and we do have a really good team from across Canada (and) some good collaborators internationally who are very interested

in seeing this (project) move forward.”

The project’s co-applicants are Verena Tunnicliffe from the University of Victoria, Philippe Archambault from Université de Québec in Rimouski and Maurice Levasseur at Université Laval.

A lot of work remains to ensure the project is one of the two to four proposals selected for funding.

The team will prepare a full research proposal that further articulates the questions to be posed. The deadline to submit that proposal will be by the end of February 2014.

Twitter: @TeleAndrew

Organizations: Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, Marine Functions and Services, University of Victoria

Geographic location: Canada, Rimouski

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