2004 Gulf of Maine Science-to-Management Establishing Research Priorities

Final Report: GoMC-RARGOM Theme Session 04 – 2
Gulf of Maine Science-to-Management
Establishing Research Priorities


Sound coastal decision-making depends on the sustained interaction between scientists and managers that produces the science needed by managers. Over time, the Regional Association for Research in the Gulf of Maine (RARGOM) and the Gulf of Maine Council on the Environment (Council) have played an instrumental role in supporting communication among and between scientists and managers in the region. Building on an extensive base of scientist-to-scientist communication, RARGOM prepared a “Research Plan” in 1992 for the new Regional Marine Research Program that incorporated regional research needs. Much research has been completed since that date and it is timely and appropriate that a new discussion about regional research priorities be initiated.

The Council and RARGOM recognize that a priority-setting process is complex and needs to incorporate many mandates and perspectives. A new research effort is driven by both immediate resource management needs and by individual scientific curiosity. New research, both basic and applied, should focus along a geographic continuum from the open Gulf, to various coastal embayments, and up into the Gulf’s watershed. It needs to be conducted at scales appropriate to processes and environmental issues. Research priorities cannot be established in any single meeting or by any single subset of Gulf participants.

During 2004, both GoMC and RARGOM renewed efforts to sustain the dialogue between coastal scientists and resource managers about the kinds of policy-driven research needed to solve longstanding environmental and resource issues in the Gulf region. Policy-driven research is an essential component of any priority setting discussion and will drive the distribution of research funding by some agencies.

One step has been taken by the GoMC to initiate this process. A web-based survey hosted by the Council and the Coastal States Organization (CSO) was conducted to identify the research, information, and technology needs of resource managers from the Gulf of Maine states and provinces. The tabular results of the survey and a 12-page report (appendix 1) providing an analysis and historical perspective of this feedback are both available for review on the Council’s web site (see http://www.gulfofmaine.org under publications).

The Council and RARGOM have cooperated to bring the results of the survey to a wider Gulf audience for discussion. On September 20, 2004, over 40 scientists and resource managers met for a one-day meeting in South Portland, Maine. Based on the CSO survey, the region’s top priority management concerns are habitat change and land use. The purpose of the forum was to identify critical research activities that could eventually lead to the improved management of coastal ecosystems affected by these issues. The Planning Committee intentionally constrained the South Portland meeting to a discussion of the two highest-ranked management issues, in part, due to a realization that a full discussion of research priorities could not take place in one day with a single small group.

Meeting Summary

A Planning Committee designed a one-day discussion to initiate a wider review of the CSO survey results and to begin to “scope out” specific research tasks that might be needed to address the highlighted management issues. The Committee developed a Project Template to guide the meeting work groups and to focus group discussion. The meeting sought to begin the process of soliciting researcher feedback on the survey results, knowing that an on-going effort by RARGOM would be needed.

One science-management issue is woven through every discussion of regional research needs and that is a disconnect between the researchers and the managers focused partly on geographic scales and partly on time. At the risk of oversimplification, managers need to address todays environmental problems primarily in the watershed and at the waters edge while researchers try to understand processes that extend beyond these constraining space/time boundaries into the wider ocean. Essential linkages between these two coastal “regimes” are not yet adequately highlighted by anyone. Anyone who has participated in a science-management discussion has heard the echo of this disconnect.

This communication problem arose quickly in South Portland because the CSO survey results focused tightly on nearshore resource management issues while giving less weight to Gulf-wide, open-ocean processes. Such wider Gulf processes may be essential for a resolution of a specific near-shore problem but the connection is apt to be obscure and not likely to be identified in a manager survey. Hence the emphasis on effective dialog between the various groups that work in the coastal zone.

A second communication problem also arose in South Portland, that of a need for clear and specific problem definition. The identification of generic management issues like “Habitat Change” and “Land Use” help to guide us in a general direction but quickly lose their usefulness when specific actions (either management or research) begin to be discussed. To some extent, an analogy can be made with the old saw: “I don’t know art but I know what I like when I see it”. Managers already know that the generic survey topics identified by the survey would need to be defined much more rigorously before any specific management action could be implemented. When scientific information is also missing, then this clarification and definition is equally essential before any new research is undertaken. For example, when designing a research project to assess “Habitat Change”, a researcher might ask specific testable questions about changes in ecosystem structure or function or changes in species interactions in the system. Such specific research questions are not esoteric niceties but are essential steps toward an improved understanding of “Habitat Change” that will provide useful information to a manager.

The issue of research priorities related to habitat change in the Gulf is not a new topic of discussion and the need for on-going discussion between scientists and managers is highlighted by Appendix 3. This list of research priorities is taken from a previous (1994) RARGOM workshop, which developed recommendations for research from the scientists perspective. A new list, developed in 2005, would perhaps look somewhat different but it is evident that a list prepared in collaboration would be sorted quite differently than separate lists produced independently.

Although directed by the Planning Committee to focus tightly on the two management issues highlighted by the survey, meeting participants used a Project Template to begin the process of defining research tasks that would be needed to address the identified management issue. To a surprising extent, this template worked very well as a model to help meeting participants define research tasks and begin to estimate a level of effort necessary for each. These templates contributed to the formulation of sixresearch projects proposed as research priortites for the region (appendix 4). These projects required further examination by the Gulf of Maine research and management communities. They are put forward as a step toward defining Gulf of Maine habitat change and land use research priorities.

A final issue arose at the meeting and remains to be resolved. Although all lumped by the survey respondents into “research needs”, each identified issue is actually a mix of research needs and information needs. Commonly, research results may be available that are unknown or inaccessible to managers. When attempting to address manager-identified “research” needs a parallel effort in research “translation” should also be launched. Researchers cannot expect managers to reach back to original scientific publications for essential information any more than managers can expect researchers to develop management strategies. This translation effort also will require effective and on-going dialog.

Lessons Learned

1. Developing research priorities is difficult. With only manager interests and researcher interests included and only two specific issues under discussion, it proved difficult to identify well-defined and achievable research projects that are tightly focused on specific management concerns,. One confounding factor will be the separation of information needs, from research needs because some “research” needs identified by managers may prove to be lack of access to recent research results.

2. Getting the right people to the discussion is important. The discussion process was only started in South Portland and the Planning Committee acknowledged that the meeting would be but a single step in a complex process. While the Committee sought to achieve a good balance of scientists and managers, the participants actually in attendance presented a random mix of views; some more tactical in their perspective and some better able to see the strategic (“big picture”) long-term context. Both views are needed. We need to use the results of South Portland to facilitate a wider on-going discussion of research priorities in the Gulf.

3. A balanced discussion of regional research needs, especially research that is expected to address management issues, should engage social scientists more energetically. Few social scientists were represented in So. Portland, from either academic or management realms. Basic information on social science research done on priority management topics should be incorporated into future discussions and those researchers integrated into a priority-setting process. .Highlighted as one issue of importance in South Portland was the assessment of “value” of natural resources and natural processes.

4. The use of pre-designed templates helped to maintain group focus and enhance the groups’ progress. Having blank research templates prepared in advance allows the group to focus on essential specific research project details and on ancillary efforts needed to support a project while guiding separate groups to produce information of similar detail. Participants were asked to address the research, information, and technology needs for habitat change or land use, using the template to help tease out and capture comparable levels of detail. Several “straw-man” research projects were developed at the meeting , as an exercise, and are appended.

5. A one-day meeting can only initiate a discussion that should continue beyond this initial face-to-face contact. Meeting organizers need to provide the opportunity for such discussion, probably in other formats (e.g., on-line in) that will open the discussion to a larger and wider group. Such an opportunity will permit the filling iin of details inevitably missing at a one-day discussion.


All meeting participants agree that the setting of region-scale research priorities is a complex task that can only be accomplished through broad discussion involving all affected parties. In addition, both scientific curiosity and societal needs must be incorporated into this process. Neither this single meeting in south Portland, nor this small group can direct this process but one step builds on the previous ones.

This report describes a very early and very small step in the research priorities setting process. Societal needs have begun to be addressed through a survey of resource managers, who identified future research needs from the management perspective. This perspective is largely driven by todays management problems and has not yet incorporated an understanding of natural processes on a scale that crosses jurisdictional boundaries. Feedback from research scientists to the managers research priority list would be a useful “reality check” and opportunity for that feedback was initiated in south Portland. This feedback loop will be developed and expanded through future RARGOM activities.

Who might pay for future research, once we all agree on a list of priorities? Except for the now-terminated Regional Marine Research program, research funding with a regional perspective has been weak. Several research funding programs are already in place in the region, each focused on a portion of the Gulf or a subset of the issues of concern. Might these pre-existing programs work more cooperatively, with a region-scale view in the future? The Oceans Commission has strongly recommended that coastal research support at the federal level be dramatically increased, but the implementation of this recommendation may be in a distant future. A wider discussion of closer regional collaboration between existing programs while we simultaneously position ourselves for a brighter funding future is appropriate. This report opens a door to that discussion.


1. Survey of “research priorities: as identified by coastal managers Survey report provides an analysis and historical perspective of results for the Gulf of Maine, available on the Council’s web site at URL: http://www.gulfofmaine.org

2. Project Template , (last piece in invitation package), prepared by the Planning Committee to help focus participant discussion; a blank form and “straw-man” examples resulting from the South Portland discussions are appended.

3.  Research priorities list related to habitat change as produced by previous (1994) RARGOM workshop.

4. Seeking Comments on Habitat Change and Land Use Research


RARGOM celebrates 20 years of service to the Gulf of Maine community