Courtesy Erin Satterthwaite

How do you engage the next generation of ocean leaders? A new study has some tips

Katie Valentine

Warming, pollution, acidification, habitat loss – the ocean faces some major challenges, and finding solutions to these challenges is going to require input from a wide range of stakeholders – including younger generations. 

But how do ocean decision-makers engage the next generation of leaders? A new report co-authored by California Sea Grant offers tips and tools to do just that.

The report, published in October in PLOS Biology, lays out five “pillars” that can help guide the work of organizations, governments and individuals in engaging early-career professionals. It relied on previous studies of surveys from 1,400 international ocean professionals, a needs assessment conducted by the North Pacific Marine Science Organization, and a multidisciplinary panel of experts from around the world to develop its results. 

“The ocean is facing a lot of social and ecological challenges that are very interconnected,” said Erin Satterthwaite, marine ecologist at California Sea Grant and lead author of the report. “So it’s important that we think about how we make the process of finding solutions inclusive and participatory, and this paper is starting to do that.”

Here are the report’s recommendations for prioritizing early career professionals in ocean science:


Share knowledge

Strong networks aren’t just important for career advancement; they’re also key to developing creative, purposeful solutions. But it can be hard for early career professionals to break into existing networks – they may not know which network exists, how to find them, or how to get involved. Organizations can help with this, the report says, by holding events and networking opportunities, as well as creating mentorship and knowledge-sharing opportunities. 


Provide training opportunities that transcend disciplines 

The report states that “despite a growing number of cross- and interdisciplinary graduate programs, single-disciplinary training remains the norm, often as a result of the traditionally siloed nature of university departments.” To counter that, organizations should consider creating opportunities for interdisciplinary trainings – those that mix social science with natural science, for instance, and include a focus on skills such as team development, project management, communication and problem-solving.

The report cites the California Sea Grant Extension Program as a good example of an organization that provides early career ocean professionals with a chance to work across a range of disciplines. These professionals “work with academic and government agencies across state and federal boundaries, and…gain unique experiential knowledge.”

“These California Sea Grant positions really do span the knowledge to action spectrum – from research to society,” Satterthwaite says.


Incentivize collaboration – and re-think metrics

Early career professionals are often the ones most impacted by traditional metrics and evaluations for their career progression, the report states. These metrics should be re-organized to include incentives for collaboration, including working across teams and disciplines. 

“For example, if collaboration is a core value, merit reviews should also value demonstrating positive teamwork, global networking and providing open science, rather than individual performance as is the norm,” the report states. “Similarly, core metrics of success can be broadened to value demonstrated mentorship, leadership, diversity, inclusion and research team well-being.”


Prioritize inclusivity within the organizational structure

The report calls for democratizing organizations by rethinking traditional hierarchical structures. 

“More participatory organizational models catalyze a culture of accountability and shared leadership at all levels,” the authors write. “As such, more democratic organizations that adopt codes of conduct and action plans to support marginalized [Early Career Ocean Professionals] provide a mechanism for more diverse ECOP champions and leaders to emerge.”

In addition, organizations should include incorporating and supporting early career professionals in their long-term strategy. This includes keeping career stage diversity in mind for things like advisory panels, committees and other key organizational groups.


Work toward culture change

In order to make these changes last, organizations can weave inclusivity throughout their organizational structures. They can also develop lasting recruitment plans for early career professionals.

“Inclusive recruitment strategies result in organizations that foster creativity and diverse thinking for realizing innovation and agile design that can generate unique and inventive ocean solutions,” the report states. “For example, ECOPs can bring new ideas and ways of thinking to stagnant silos.”

To learn more about early career ocean professionals, check out the Early Career Ocean Professionals Programme within the UN Ocean Decade. For more opportunities for Early Career Ocean Professionals, check out Sea Grant’s fellowship programs.  


About California Sea Grant

NOAA’s California Sea Grant College Program funds marine research, education and outreach throughout California. Headquartered at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, California Sea Grant is one of 34 Sea Grant programs in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Department of Commerce.