Impactful science by OIST

How might we bridge the gap between science and practice to foster the sustainable development of Okinawa’s blue economy?

About OIST and the Marine Biophysics Unit (MBU)

Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) is a young university overlooking the ocean and forest. By having no departments, with students and faculty from around the world, artificial barriers between people and topics are eliminated. OIST carries out research in a wide variety of fields including environmental, ecological and marine sciences, bringing some of the best minds in the world to Okinawa.


The Marine Biophysics Unit (MBU) investigates biological processes in the ocean at various spatial scales, from micrometers for microbes to thousands of kilometers for biogeographic events, by incorporating physical, mathematical, and biological approaches. The physical oceanographic resources and expertise at the MBU provide a unique research environment for studying marine biological processes, influenced by powerful disturbances (e.g., typhoons) and climatic forcings (e.g., global warming). The MBU was established at OIST in 2009, because of Okinawa’s ideal geographic position and access to the outstanding research resources of OIST.


The ecosystem of Okinawa

Okinawa is home to many coastal and open ocean ecosystems including mangroves and deep-sea hydrothermal vents that support rare species that live nowhere else in the world. In 2021, a chain of islands in Southwestern Japan, including some parts of Okinawa, was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list. By quantifying physical and biological processes in the ocean, we contribute to protecting them from human-induced changes that could otherwise lead to the collapse of these vulnerable ecosystems in Okinawa and the loss of rare species.


Sustainability issues

Okinawa’s beautiful coral reefs lie at the northern boundary of their range within the region supporting high marine biodiversity and are exposed to large seasonal variations in water temperature and strong disturbances created by typhoons. Okinawa is located close to hydrothermal vent fields that support ecosystems of endemic species that do not depend on photosynthesis. Okinawa is situated in “Typhoon Alley”, the region with the most frequent and fully-developed tropical cyclones on Earth. The MBU takes advantage of these natural resources to study how marine ecosystems work.

Sustaining a healthy coastal environment is a critical part of the Blue Economy of any island as it maintains key ecosystem services. As in many other tropical and subtropical island systems, the ocean and the tangent coastal areas serve particularly important economic roles as building blocks of important industries, such as fishery and tourism. Blue Economy is expected to provide areas to harness new renewable energy, create jobs being inclusive to all demographics, and help coastal areas become resilient to climate changes by supporting healthy and diverse marine ecosystems achieved by environmentally friendly practices and sustainable resource management and minimizing pollution. Okinawa currently faces important environmental issues, of which many are concentrated in coastal areas: concrete walls/tetrapods, landfill sites, intensive agriculture, the construction of tourist resorts, and other buildings/roads. These issues have long-lasting environmental impacts, especially when they intensify other problems such as soil runoff, wastewater dumping, or tourism practices in the ocean can have a compounding effect on coastal health. Additionally, an increasing occupancy of the coastline by the touristic industry and other private practices negatively correlates with the accessibility for local residents. This is especially true within Onna village, where OIST is located. 


The research-application gap

Environmental issues are relevant to scientists and civil society alike. On one side, at universities/research institutes around the globe, scientists are furthering our understanding of biological, chemical, and physical ocean processes affecting conservation and sustainable development. On the other side, local communities, such as fishermen and conservation groups, are confronted daily with the challenge of preserving coastal resources and have accumulated generational knowledge about the ocean. However, there is a large disconnect between the research being carried out by scientists and how these results affect civil society and people’s relationships with the ocean and the other way around.


An uneven level of accessibility to scientific findings among stakeholders is part of the research-application gap problem. The struggle to overcome this problem is often related to science being perceived as complicated and boring instead of intuitive and creative. Currently, at OIST and other scientific institutions, scientific understanding is often shared in the form of information presented at educational activities and workshops but not as an experience to which different stakeholders can engage and contribute. This conventional image of science and limited usage is hindering its contribution to society. Interesting findings, such as ocean forecasting could be used to inform the coastguard and members of the public of dangerous rip-currents by creating an accessible website or app.


Engaging more with civil society would not only enhance the impact of research findings but also provide opportunities for scientists to identify unexplored phenomena and back up support industry partners with scientific knowledge. For example,  for many years Okinawan fishermen have been growing and replacing coral reefs. They had been doing this with no information on how this affected the reefs genetic diversity and health. Scientists from OIST were consulted and they carried out measurements to detect the effects coral replanting was having on the reef.


To bridge the research-application gap, several barriers need to be overcome. Scientists need to be encouraged to look beyond the boundaries of their institutions to engage in conversations with local communities, companies, NGOs, and other relevant stakeholders. In general researchers are willing to do this but there are no career incentives to do so as they are evaluated based on the quality and quantity of their publications which are not particularly accessible to non-scientists. New mechanisms are needed to facilitate and encourage mutual understanding, improve communication between scientists and stakeholders to bring different mindsets together to reach the shared goal of ocean conservation. To be successful, these new mechanisms to create engagement between scientists and civil society have to be sustained by sound business models and incentive schemes.


Your ideas to bridge the gap

How might we bridge the gap between science and practice to foster sustainable development of Okinawa’s Blue Economy?  Let’s create innovative ideas to bring science and practice close together to transform Okinawa. Your idea addresses the challenge question from several perspectives. You might imagine solutions that help science learn from society, think of solutions that help society learn from science, or come up with solutions that enhance mutual learning. Here are some questions to trigger your thinking:


How can society help science to identify relevant issues to study? What issues are not being investigated by scientists?


What can science learn from practice and contribute back to society? What practical knowledge is available locally? How are fishermen, ocean conservation groups, and local communities currently handling environmental issues? How can scientists help to improve local practices?


How can accessibility of scientific and generational ocean-related knowledge be improved to create mutual benefit and shared learning among stakeholders in Okinawa?


Which practical applications of scientific findings could contribute to the Blue Economy? How can resort industries, diving industries, food industries (restaurants), shipping industries, municipal offices, and power plants use scientific findings to embrace more sustainable practices, while maintaining profitability?


How can the results of scientific research be transformed into a tool that is available to relevant stakeholders to improve their utilization of ocean resources in a sustainable way?


Solution categories

Promising solutions to our challenge might fall in one or more of the following categories: 


👉 Technological solutions that go beyond the simple presentation of scientific information e.g. startup ideas that leverage scientific findings for business applications;

👉 Social solutions to bring various stakeholder groups together to engage with science e.g. citizen-science projects that involve society in collecting research data through observations;

👉 Academic solutions to make scientific about areas that local stakeholders consider a priority accessible e.g. mobile applications that help civil society signal issues worth studying by scientists;

👉 Economic solutions that make sustainability solutions profitable for multiple stakeholders e.g incentive schemes for scientists to create academic spin-offs;

👉 Spatial solutions that make multi-stakeholder consultation and learning possible e.g. physical spaces that are open to local residents and tourists to raise awareness about the ocean;

👉 Creative solutions that help science and sustainability capture the public’s imagination e.g. providing outlets for scientists to explain the causes of regularly occurring as well as extraordinary phenomena.

👉 Political solutions that come from stakeholder-scientist collaborations that influence local government policy to promote and legislate more sustainable practices.


Solutions need to show their potential to encourage economic development in a sustainable way as recognized by the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Long-term solutions that are general enough to be applied to other islands and/or cultures are particularly encouraged. We welcome both solutions that apply to a broad range of stakeholders and issues, as well as solutions that are specific to single stakeholder groups (e.g. fishermen) or issues (e.g. coral preservation). 


Collaboration incentive

The real reward is contributing to a pressing challenge. The best team across the two categories will be invited on a trip to Hawaii to present its solution to local experts.