During January 2018 world-class experts from the South West UK attended the Kick-Off meeting for the Grand Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) Blue Communities Programme, held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Hosted by the University of Malaya and organised by Plymouth Marine Laboratory, University of Exeter and Plymouth University, this meeting was the first opportunity for all international programme partners to meet face-to-face and discuss the details of the ambitious work plan over the next four years. The GCRF Blue Communities programme is funded through the 5-year £1.5Bn Research Council UK (RCUK) GCRF ‘Building Capacity’ funding call, to encourage collaboration and exchange with international partners in tackling global challenges in the national interest. Blue Communities aims to mutually exchange knowledge, experience and best practice between the UK and SE Asia on marine planning and sustainable resource use to help improve the health, wellbeing and livelihoods of coastal communities in SE Asia case study sites.
Each of the countries in the SE Asia region relies on marine and coastal ecosystems for food, employment and their general well-being. However, the marine environment is under immense pressure from the multiple, and often conflicting, needs of the people that use it. Marine spatial planning involving coordinated decision-making has been highlighted as a key requirement for a sustainable future in the region.
The meeting was well attended with over 50 delegates from the partner countries; UK, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Enthusiasm for such a collaborative programme shone through as participants networked, explored case study site issues and opportunities together, identified training needs, and co-created meaningful and realistic work plans to achieve the programme’s goals.
The importance of such a meeting was evident as participants from different counties and cultures were able to tease out and discuss the plethora of issues facing various regions and communities, allowing a deeper understanding of the societal context in which Blue Communities research will be undertaken. This is vital if the aim of a lasting impact is to be achieved.
The Blue Communities programme will focus on four case study sites, three of which are UNESCO Man & Biosphere Reserves and one a Marine Protected Area. Using such structures that are already in place helps researchers engage existing networks and groups in the region, which will help facilitate the multiple conversations that will be needed for the project partners to collect information and communicate findings to those who would benefit directly.
Professor Mel Austen, GCRF Blue Communities Programme Leader and a Head of Science at Plymouth Marine Laboratory, commented: “It was inspiring to see so many people from different countries, cultures and scientific disciplines come together collaboratively to work on this common goal; improving lives through scientific and societal understanding. By combining marine science, social issues and health aspects, this new approach to collaborative working will help Blue Communities create a lasting legacy for the benefit of coastal communities in the target regions, as well as the scientific partners in South East Asia and the UK. There was such a buzz of enthusiasm among all the people at this first Blue Communities meeting that I felt that we had to be on the right path towards these goals!”
Professor Lora Fleming, GCRF Blue Communities Project Leader and Director of the European Centre for Environment and Human Health at the University of Exeter Medical School, said: “I’m delighted to be mutually sharing knowledge with our partners in South West and South East Asia on these important issues. This is a region where people’s health and well-being are fundamentally interconnected with the marine environment. Each country has its own specific needs and expertise, and it’s so important to bring everyone together to collaborate to address these.”
Dr Sabine Pahl, GCRF Blue Communities Project Leader and Associate Professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Plymouth, said: “Environmental Science has provided us with the evidence as to the scale of the issues we are facing, and behavioural science can help us to understand the human dimension in providing the solutions. In bringing together these complementary disciplines, we have a great chance of addressing some of these challenges relating to the natural environment and the wellbeing of people depending upon it in so many ways.”