Ocean Literacy with an RRI perspective. Experiences at the Institut de Ciències del Mar (Barcelona)

We are all familiar with the Ocean, that body of salt water that covers nearly 3/4 of the surface of our planet. It is also important to mention that the importance of our Oceans cannot be understated. They are a critical part of our planet’s carbon cycle, water cycle, as well as being a huge reservoir of heat which directly affects the weather and climate across the Earth. Oceans are also home to a multitude of species, spanning across all taxa, as well as being the location for some of the most important biodiversity hotspots on our planet. The ocean provides essential ecosystem services to us humans, including a food supply, a means of trade and transportation, climate regulation, as well as providing space for recreation and inspiration; just to name a few.

Despite all of this, in-depth knowledge of the ocean has traditionally been limited to people who have direct access to the sea (oceanographers, fishermen, and the like). As a result, the ocean and its importance are not generally appreciated within the public mindset. We believe this must change quickly if we as a society hope to meet future challenges. This issue is exacerbated because many formal education curricula in different countries do not teach anything about important scientific ocean concepts, with a tendency to under-represent the marine environment, discussing mainly terrestrial concepts and examples within geographically oriented lessons.

The need to reverse these trends and link marine science with education and policy has been highlighted in recent years, and the ocean has gained increasing prominence in various official forums and policy discussions. These collective efforts are commonly referred to as “Ocean Literacy”, with their main goal being to embed within society a greater understanding about the ocean, in order to change behaviors and public opinions, and to allow us all to effectively respond to future societal needs regarding our oceans. In the United States in 2005, after discussions among scientists, educators, and policy makers, 7 principles and 44 fundamental concepts were agreed, that would serve as the core principles for Ocean Literacy and these were then later published1. Subsequently, these principles were also adopted by Europe and the UNESCO, and incorporated in their policy agendas.

The essence of ocean literacy is to understand both the ocean’s influence on us and our influence on the oceans. This understanding, and the responsible behavior that comes with it, is essential in a changing planetary context for the preservation of our planet and also for our well-being.

Sources of this ocean knowledge and the relevant societal actors (mainly within policy and education) need to work together, so that information within these fields is updated and disseminated expeditiously, enabling effective decision-making to catalyze appropriate changes in behavior.

In 2021, we enter the Decade of Oceans, as proclaimed by UNESCO, with Ocean Literacy being identified as one of the key priorities areas2. Effective Ocean Literacy efforts, like other challenging goals of our time, must be embedded in our societal and cultural frameworks in order that we can respond quickly to the social challenges we all face.

The Institut de Ciències del Mar (ICM-CSIC) in Barcelona, Spain, has a wide experience of developing different Ocean Literacy resources and working in collaboration with different sectors and stakeholders to ensure the successful transfer of knowledge generated within the institution (Fig.1), and has a history of working closely with policy makers, the media, education centers and citizen groups, among others.

One particularly important effort that should be highlighted is “El Mar a Fons” (The Sea in Depth). This initiative began in 2010 and provides a framework for developing free-access educational resources about marine concepts to Spanish classrooms. Different games, videos and experiments as well as in-person workshops were developed to improve the relationship between citizens and the oceans3. Since 2020, thanks to the institution’s participation as a partner in the ResBios project, the ICM-CSIC has been able to focus on RRI aspects and develop specific strategies not only to improve upon mechanisms that are already in place, but also to introduce new approaches and create new spaces for learning. Thus, the education and outreach activities developed under Ocean Literacy are also underpinned by the socially responsible aspects and dimensions of RRI. The ICM-CSIC, under the ResBios project, is particularly incorporating institutional changes related to scientific education, citizen engagement and gender, linking all these aspects together to ensure their institutionalization and the legacy of the project beyond its lifetime.

ICM-CSIC’s activities include the creation of a network of marine schools, which connects actors who are committed to integrating marine knowledge into formal education. Thanks to this network; needs, best practices, and opportunities have been identified and the different actors involved have been able to benefit from this community. With this experience, the ICM-CSIC has been able to identify specific needs and to more effectively integrate the different opinions present, with the main objective of being more inclusive, to benefit from external knowledge and adapting to changing societal needs. During this process, accompanied by coordinators, mentors, other implementing partners and the expert advisory board of the ResBios project, the Institute has been able to effectively apply the four dimensions of RRI: inclusivity, anticipation, responsiveness and reflexivity.

Mutual learning in various RRI topics also allowed for the institution to pay attention to other important RRI aspect such as: ethics, citizen engagement and gender equality, and additionally embed these in its E&O activities, for example, highlighting the essential role of women in marine science. Other such examples include the organization of participatory events with Barcelona’s citizens, including a new participatory project about marine seafloor restoration in Barcelona that aims to promote the stewardship by citizens of their marine environment, which, while poorly appreciated, is extremely important.

Janire Salazar and Josep-Maria Gili (from Marine Science Literacy Committee at the Institut de Ciències del Mar, ICM-CSIC).


1 Schoedinger, S., Tran, L. U., & Whitley, L. (2010). From the principles to the scope and sequence: A brief history of the ocean literacy campaign. NMEA Special Report, 3, 3–7.

2 Ryabinin, V., Barbière, J., Haugan, P., Kullenberg, G., Smith, N., McLean, C., Troisi, A., Fischer, A., Aricò, S., Aarup, T., Pissierssens, P., Visbeck, M., Oskfeldt Enevoldsen, H. & Rigaud, J. (2019). The UN decade of ocean science for sustainable development. Frontiers in Marine Science, 6, 470.

3 Salazar, J., Dominguez-Carrió, C., Gili, J. M., Ambroso, S., Grinyó, J., & Vendrell-Simón, B. (2019). Building a new ocean literacy approach based on a simulated dive in a submarine: A multisensory workshop to bring the deep sea closer to people. Frontiers in Marine Science, 6, 576.

This is the blog of the ResBios project (https://www.resbios.eu). It aims to bring RRI institutional changes into some biosciences research organizations.