Interview with IOC-UNESCO's new Chair: Peter Haugan from Norway

On 24 June 2015 the Norwegian scientist and former vice-Chair of the European Marine Board Peter Haugan was elected Chairperson of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC). Our attaché Stein van Oosteren spoke with him about his vision on IOC’s future and its relevance for the Dutch government and oceanographic society.

IOC is now again chaired by a person from our Group of Western countries. Is that an opportunity?

Yes I think so. The Norwegian chairpersonship is a good opportunity to raise awareness about ocean challenges in Norway, but also in Europe as a whole. It will certainly strengthen Norway’s involvement in the IOC and help us align IOC priorities with our national priorities. This can apply to the Netherlands as well.

What are IOC’s biggest achievements?

IOC enabled the establishment of the tsunami warning systems (TWS) that can save thousands of lives. First in the Pacific Ocean (1965) and then in the Indian Ocean after a tsunami had killed over 200.000 people there in 2004. These two systems are working now, so the IOC’s mission of convener is mostly completed there. However in Europe  and in the Caribbean the TWS are still under construction and IOC is still crucial to keep this process going. Another achievement is the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS). It’s an impressive network of research vessels, satellites, tide gauges and Argo buoys that collect data in the ocean. Without this network we would not be able to understand the “pauses” in global warming that were measured on the land. Thanks to GOOS we know now that global warming continues and that the heat “disappears” in the oceans, that continue to warm up. This information is crucial for understanding the climate problem.

The IOC is currently having its biennial Assembly that launched the Second Indian Ocean Expedition. Could this project also be beneficial for the Netherlands?

Absolutely. The Netherlands could send a scientist with some equipment to participate in one of the missions. This contribution would be beneficial to both the Dutch oceanographic community and to the multilateral scientific undertaking itself. And when you study ecosystem dynamics it’s indispensable to study in different environments. The Indian Ocean could be an excellent opportunity for the Dutch scientific community. Lastly, these missions are also opportunities for the Netherlands to present its knowledge and technology to the world.

Sometimes scientists and policy-makers complain about a disconnect between them. Do you recognize this?

Yes I recognize this. But first of all I don’t want to create false expectations: I think it’s very difficult to make high level policy-makers attend the almost two weeks of the biennial IOC Assembly. On the other hand I do think IOC can improve the science-policy dialogue.


For example by organizing more informal meetings in between IOC Assemblies where policy-makers can express their needs to scientists. This could focus science and at the same time raise political interest for ocean science. A second example is the World Ocean Science Report that IOC just initiated. It will help decision-makers focus their science policy by informing them on the state of our ocean science capabilities. And lastly IOC could make a useful connection with another important report: the World Ocean Assessment Report. These two reports – about the state of the oceans and our knowledge of it – can provide key input for a comprehensive discussion on what Member States can do in the regions given their scientific capacities. IOC could initiate and host this discussion.

Many UN organizations deal with oceans like FAO, IMO and WMO. What is IOC’s added value in this busy playing field?

Each of the organizations you mention have a specific role related to their specific theme: food and agriculture (FAO), maritime traffic (IMO) and weather patterns (WMO). IOC is different in that it addresses ocean science in general. This makes the IOC relevant for all these organizations. It also makes the IOC relevant as a neutral broker when it comes to international sea conventions. For example with regard to the UN Law of the Sea, for which IOC is already the expert body. This general scientific role is a difficult role, but a very important one.

What about other partners like the private sector? The UK Policy Brief on the future of IOC (see this link) suggested to involve them more, for example by giving them some sort of associate status. What do you think?

I’m not sure the best way of involving the private sector is by giving them a formal status. We must not forget that IOC is and remains an intergovernmental organization. But it’s true that IOC must keep close track of the technology and knowledge that is developed in the private sector. IOC has to think of new and better ways to involve these capacities that are crucial for quality oceanic research.

What other ideas on IOC’s future will you take home after the debate on the UK Policy Brief?

First of all the need to focus IOC’s funding on its key mandate, which is to secure long-term ocean observation with help from both governments and civil society. Secondly IOC should become better at informing experts and the public about the state of the ocean and IOC’s work.

Could social media be an option to boost this communication?

I’m on twitter already (@PeterMHaugan) and I would like to consider using twitter for communication about IOC’s work. But it’s a very quick and volatile medium. This could entail risks because my tweets would engage the whole of IOC. For the moment I prefer to continue to tweet on a personal title, but I might open a special account for the IOC Chairperson in the near future.

The Dutch Kingdom has six islands in the Caribbean ocean, three of which are Small Island Development States (SIDS). What can IOC do for SIDS?

Good point. Many members of the IOC are SIDS. Although they can’t always afford to come to IOC meetings, the IOC should focus on them. They are the first ones to be impacted by climate change. They should expect to benefit from IOC via the tsunami warning systems, ocean services and capacity building.

Do you have a message for the Dutch oceanographic community?

Your Belgian neighbors are very active in IOC. Belgium leads IOC’s International Oceanographic Data and Information Exchange Programme (IODE) in Ostend. They share their knowledge with the world via an “Ocean Teacher” programme for ocean data managers on all continents. My advice: ask the Belgians why they chose to cooperate so closely with IOC. The Netherlands with its strong oceanographic community could also gain from using IOC as a gate to the rest of the world in the same way as Belgium does. It would be good for the Netherlands and for the IOC.