A new paper published by centre researchers argues that a radically new thinking and approaches is required for marine research. In the paper, lyrics from PJ Harvey, an English musician, is used as inspiration. Photo: A. Maslennikov/Azote

marine research

Going for the big fish

Songwriter PJ Harvey provides inspiration for paper calling for radically new thinking within marine research

Story highlights

  • Final refrain of Down By The Water, a song by British songwriter PJ
    Harvey, provides the inspiration and structure for a new paper on the future direction of marine research
  • Authors call on the research community to be more ambitious and encourage more collaboration with more "distant" disciplines
  • Österblom and colleagues not the first researchers to use songs as inspiration for research papers, Bob Dylan particularly popular

“Little fish, big fish swimming in the water
come back here and give me my daughter”

The final refrain of Down By The Water, a song by British songwriter PJ Harvey, provides the inspiration and structure for a new paper from researchers at the centre on the future direction of marine research.

The “little fish” are the easy pickings, the obvious areas of research that, with good investment will expand knowledge rapidly and may yield essential results for society relating to marine stewardship.

The authors, led by Henrik Österblom, write in the journal Ecosystems, “Small fish are easier to catch than big fish. A decade of summer holiday gillnetting in the Baltic Sea may yield one individual cod Gadus morhua, whereas springtime handlining may yield hundreds of individual herring Clupea harengus. Anyone with proper equipment and basic knowledge can catch herring.”

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Going for three big fish instead
The three “little fish” in the study are: understanding interacting drivers of change; identifying thresholds in systems, and; investigating social-ecological dynamics. Österblom and colleagues warn that fishing for small fry, while far from easy, may miss some of the really big future challenges and they call on the research community to also go for something altogether more ambitious.

“Big fish are generally more difficult to catch than small fish. Catching big fish can be intimidating, and killing and gutting them is not always fun. But ultimately it is a much bigger meal, and the reward is greater”

Henrik Österblom, lead author

The first big fish is to model the Anthropocene. What mechanisms drive change in industries shaping marine ecosystems, they ask. How does aquaculture reduce pressure on marine habitats and food webs, or how does conservation of species in one area lead to transferring problems elsewhere?

The authors write that existing models and scenarios must incorporate methods, theories, and approaches from adjoining disciplines. And the models must also incorporate surprise, tipping points and cascading effects across social and ecological systems. 

The second whopper is “operationalizing resilience”. Recent research identifying principles for resilience point the way towards implementing resilience-grounded solutions. But how can these principles be adapted for effective marine stewardship under the combined effects of climate and the new globalized economy?

The third big fish is to improve understanding of “cross-scale dynamics” of social-ecological systems. Put another way: how do global drivers affect local people and ecosystems and vice versa. The authors suggest novel approaches to research, for example, embedding academics in “change processes that are deliberately designed as experiments.”

Catching the big fish will be a collaborative effort beyond the marine science community bringing in distant disciplines such as nanotechnology, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, gender and equity, or business administration and finance, the authors suggest.

“Such collaboration can help identify novel ways to understand and govern marine ecosystems.”

They conclude that while there are dangers associated with doing something uncomfortable, there are also rewards.

“Jumping in at the deep end of the pool is fun the first time you try it, but quickly becomes normal as you learn how to swim. Jumping into the water from ten meters above never gets old. It is completely terrifying every time: a short period of weightlessness and panic, followed by a sudden impact. It is exciting and not completely safe. We argue that the concept of the Anthropocene requires marine scientists to move outside traditional comfort zones – to take a big dive, a deep swim, and go for some big fish,” they write.

A history of musical inspiration
Österblom and colleagues are not the first researchers to use songs as inspiration for research papers, though possibly the first to take inspiration from PJ Harvey (or, blues singer Papa Charlie Jackson - the original lyrics date back to a 1924 recording of Salty Dog Blues by Jackson, though the song is likely much older still).

In 2007, Jennifer Jacquet from New York University used the Talking Heads song Once a Lifetime as inspiration for her paper Silent Water: a brief history of the marine fisheries crisis, published in Environment Development and Sustainability.

Neither are the authors the first in Sweden. Five medical researchers at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm have routinely inserted Bob Dylan lyrics and song titles into their research papers and academic commentaries as part of a bet made in 1997. Titles include, Nitric Oxide and Inflammation: The Answer Is Blowing In the Wind, and Blood on the Tracks: A Simple Twist of Fate?, a paper charting the ability of non-neural cells to generate neurons.

Dylan has proved particularly popular among researchers. The first reference appeared in the Journal of Practical Nursing in 1970 but since the 1990s, mentions have risen exponentially reaching 215 papers by May 2015 – six in the journal Nature alone.

However, according to the British Medical Journal, citing Dylan is no route (66) to success: “Dylan articles are cited slightly less than other similar articles”.

As the time of writing, there is not enough data to ascertain the impact of mentioning PJ Harvey (or Papa Charlie Jackson, for that matter) in academic publications.

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Polly Jean Harvey, MBE (born 9 October 1969), known as PJ Harvey, is an English musician, singer-songwriter, poet, and composer. Primarily known as a vocalist and guitarist, she is also proficient with a wide range of instruments (Source: Wikipedia/picture from Wikimedia Commons)

Published: 2016-06-23


Österblom, H., B. I. Crona, C. Folke, M. Nyström, and M. Troell. 2016. Marine Ecosystem Science on an Intertwined Planet. Ecosystems:1-8. DOI: 10.1007/s10021-016-9998-6 


About the authors

Henrik Österblom is the deputy science director at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. His primary research interests include globalization of marine social-ecological systems and the relations and the dynamics of transnational corporations.

Beatrice Crona is an assistant professor at the centre. Her work focuses on resource governance issues with particular focus on marine related topics.

Carl Folke is science director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre. He has extensive experience in transdisciplinary collaboration between natural and social scientists.

Magnus Nyström is Associate professor and Senior Lecturer at the centre. His research is focused on the effects from human interventions on ecosystem functions and processes.

Max Troell is Associate professor and Senior researcher at SRC and Beijer Institute for Ecological Economics. His work focuses on inter-linkages between aquaculture and fisheries on different spatial scales.


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