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Linking science and policy in the Baltic Sea

Scientists in the Baltic Sea region are set to intensify their cooperation in a bid to rescue their sea from a range of environmental problems and turn it into a sea which is able to sustainably provide a range of goods and services to the millions of people living on or near ...

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Scientists in the Baltic Sea region are set to intensify their cooperation in a bid to rescue their sea from a range of environmental problems and turn it into a sea which is able to sustainably provide a range of goods and services to the millions of people living on or near its shores. BONUS, an EU-funded research project is a first step in this cooperation drive.

Linked to the North Sea only by the narrow strait of Kattegat, the Baltic Sea is effectively an inland sea and as such is particularly vulnerable to environmental problems, because anything that gets into the sea will probably stay there for over 30 years.

The biggest environmental challenges facing the Baltic are eutrophication resulting from excessive nutrients being washed into the sea and pollution with hazardous substances from industrial activities and transport. Like most of the seas of the world, its fish stocks are also suffering as a result of over-fishing, and its biodiversity is in decline.

The vulnerability of the Baltic Sea to these problems has been known for a long time, and in 1974 the countries surrounding it signed the Convention for the protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea, also known as the Helsinki Convention or HELCOM. This cooperation is all the more remarkable when one considers that this was during the Cold War.

Political cooperation over the sea has been enhanced as the countries around it gradually joined the EU, culminating in 2004 with the accession of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. With the exception of two short stretches of Russian coast, the sea now lies entirely within the EU.

There is also a long history of scientific cooperation in the Baltic region, starting in 1902 with the creation of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES). The following decades saw the establishment of more scientific associations, such as the Baltic Marine Biologists and the Baltic Sea Geologists. In recent years EU projects have provided another framework for joint research projects in the region.

Now plans are afoot to establish a joint Baltic Sea research programme, and the EU-funded BONUS project is a first step towards this. The BONUS project brings together the research funding agencies from the countries surrounding the sea, including Russia, with the aim of creating the conditions for a common research agenda. The project hopes to gain funding for the programme under the little used Article 169.

'Article 169 is just one of the hundreds of articles which regulate the cooperation of the Member States, and it very simply says that if the Member States establish a research programme, then the European Community can participate,' explained Dr Kaisa Kononen of the Academy of Finland and the BONUS Project Coordinator. 'It is a very seldom used funding instrument and is very much in line with this idea of the European Research Area and coordinating European research.'

In the Baltic Sea research area, all the participating funding agencies will put money into a virtual pot and calls for proposals will be published across the region. A single application procedure will mean that all project proposals will be judged by a single evaluation panel. The project will find out shortly if its application for Article 169 funding has been successful.

Of course it is not enough to just carry out research; the results have to be communicated to policy makers. 'Scientists have to understand that their research has to be useful for some reason,' commented Dr Kononen, noting that scientists should be encouraged to create tools which can be presented to decision makers explaining what the outcome of a certain management decision will be. She cites the ICES' advice on fishing quotas as a good example of how scientists can provide research-based advice to policy makers.

Dr Kononen has been heavily involved in the organisation of a conference on this very subject which is being held in Helsinki under the auspices of the Finnish EU presidency. The conference aims to demonstrate how research can support the protection and management of the marine environment, and Dr Kononen hopes to see discussions in the conference hall between scientists and policy makers.

Ultimately, Dr Kononen hopes that the Baltic Sea will serve as a model of how to link science and policy to implement the European Marine Strategy. 'This could really be a kind of pilot demonstration area where we can show, for example to the countries of the Mediterranean, Black Sea and North Sea, how to deal with these things,' she commented. 'Maybe we will make some mistakes, maybe we will make some success stories, but all this is something that others can learn about and we are really willing to openly collaborate and show what we are doing.'

Countries

Finland