Professor Gina Yannitell Reinhardt, from the Department of Government, is Co-Investigator in an exciting grant funded as part of the UKRI Sustainable Management of UK Marine Resources (SMMR) initiative.

Part of a multidisciplinary consortium led by the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Gina is leading some of the social science work packages in the three-year MSPACE project to help advise the government and other groups on how to plan to protect oceans in the future. Read on to discover more about Gina's research, how she got involved and how this bid came together, as well as what they hope to achieve.

What are you researching with this project and what makes it unique?

This project focuses on the marine spatial planning (MSP) process, which is the way countries decide how to manage, regulate, plan for and allocate their deep-sea resources. There are a lot of people and groups that are interested in the outcomes of these processes and, in the past, most people study the biological and physical aspects, such as how temperature fluctuates, sea level rise, and other physical or chemical changes can affect marine life and resources. But this time we’re combining those insights with behavioural research too – we’re also investigating how people with different interests come together to contribute to the planning process. It’s unique because it gives us a holistic picture of the entire process for the first time, and it helps us advise the government and other groups on how to plan to protect oceans in the future.

Tell us about how the project developed and how you got involved. How long have you been interested in this area and how was this knowledge gap identified?

The SMMR initiative is a fabulous effort that UKRI (specifically NERC and ESRC), alongside Defra and Marine Scotland, are undertaking to help the UK address major gaps in marine research. I got involved because I believe interdisciplinary research is the best way to understand how to address complex societal problems like climate change. For many years, I’ve been interested in how people adapt to climate change and the disasters it brings, like hurricanes, sea level rise, and famine. I study the incentives people face and how those incentives make people and communities and governments respond to climate change and the threats it poses. My main goal is to help inform decision makers about how best to incentivise change in people’s behaviour so we can hopefully increase our sustainability and resilience.

I joined the SMMR-Net, an interdisciplinary community of researchers and policy stakeholders who are interested in many of the same things I am, a few years ago. Through it, I learned about the call for large interdisciplinary proposals to address some of the key knowledge gaps. I met Dr Ana Queirós at one of the events – Ana is a world-leading researcher in seaweed blue carbon and climate change ecology at Plymouth Marine Laboratory. She and I communicated well with each other at this event, and found each other’s approaches and work fascinating. She asked me to join her proposal (MSPACE) and I was thrilled to be a part of it. Within the project, I am leading some of the social science work packages that are exploring individuals and group values with respect to marine spatial planning, as well as the governance structure of MSP in the four devolved UK nations.

This is a very collaborative and multidisciplinary project, with a wide network of researchers working with marine industries and planning communities. Tell us more about the MSPACE consortium and how the range of expertise involved is integrated?

Across the team, our expertise is pretty impressive. In the social sciences alone, we have economists, sociologists, and political scientists with expertise in natural capital assessment, governance structures, asset mapping, and extensive social science methods. The neat thing is that this social science expertise is brought to bear on natural science modelling that has already been underway for many years, so we are able to benefit from their insights without starting from scratch. With the team’s help, Ana put together an impressive integration of policy makers (planners, regulators, managers), scholars (social and natural and computer sciences), and stakeholder groups (people who use marine resources for commercial, recreational, and transportation purposes). We meet regularly at different levels and are part of many networks that help us keep in touch with each other and share insights, as well as collect data and move the project forward.

What activities will this award be funding over the next three years? Also, how will your discoveries benefit others?

At Essex specifically, I will work with Senior Research Officer Dr Patrick Hennelly, who is joining the University of Essex from a postdoctoral fellowship in Leeds. I’ll supervise and direct him to conduct a lot of the foundational work for MSPACE. At the beginning, that will involve mapping the governance network that governs marine spatial planning in each of the devolved nations, and meeting stakeholders in each place. Then we’ll start to collect information about those stakeholders’ preferences with respect to marine spatial planning, to learn about their values and the incentives they face. All of that information will inform the second part of our project – that’s when we’ll create questionnaires and see how people’s preferences and values change over the course of the project. We’ll also find out about how each person thinks about trade-offs in terms of marine resources – like the trade-off between commerce and conservation, or between recreation and commerce. That information underpins the project’s goal to inform policy makers about what drives people to behave the way they do when it comes to protecting and preserving marine resources.

Tell us more about your future plans. Where do you see this work going next and how does this project fit into your own research ambitions?

This research has a strong personal appeal to me because it’s about helping people understand how important the ocean is, and the part they play in protecting it. I’ve always been drawn to the seaside, and I hope to one day live with a view of the sea. I have spent a lot of time studying how people adapt to environmental shocks and change, but never been able to work on a marine-related project until now. I’ve also recently been named to the UK National Decade Committee, which is devoted to promoting and enabling a whole of society approach to the UN Ocean Decade. So this project is a chance for me to become better integrated with the world of marine governance in the UK and internationally, and I’m looking forward to bringing my research perspective and skills to this work and further similar work in the future.