By Edward Hind-Ozan
Welcome to the Waterfront Hotel. Welcome to Kuching. Welcome to the 5th International Marine Conservation Congress.
This is my 5th IMCC and I’m just as excited to be attending this one as my first. And it’s a true privilege to able to address you all today. IMCCs have played SUCH an important part in my career to date. Sharing my science at this meeting has garnered me feedback from the leading experts in my field. Attending talks and poster sessions, I’ve learned approaches that have allowed me to take part in marine conservation actions that would not have otherwise happened. People I had never met are now not just colleagues and collaborators, but friends. If you are returning to IMCC for the second, third, fourth, or even fifth time, I’m sure you have reasons like mine for loving this community and the work that it does. I hope you enjoy your return and have as productive an experience as you did at any of your previous IMCCs. If this is your first IMCC, thank you for putting your faith in us. It is a hard deciding where to dedicate your funds and time and we are very grateful that you have chosen the International Marine Conservation Congress on this occasion. I wish your experience this week to be that which you expected and more.
IMCCs have not been immune to recent declines in attendance for many scientific meetings, but I am pleased to announce that with your support we have maintained our number of registered delegates for the last three congresses. IMCC5 will be attended by close to 650 conservationists. But, we know we need to keep this series relevant if we are to continue being your meeting of choice. So, please let me outline some of the new innovations are incredible Organising Committee have put in place to give you the value and experience that you expect and deserve.
The Chairs of IMCC4 ensured that our previous meeting set new standards when it came to inclusion and equality. We have attempted to continue their work here. We have reprised our Code of Conduct, a code designed to make IMCCs a place as free from bullying and harassment as possible. IMCCs should be a home away from home for everybody. If you haven’t read the code in detail, don’t worry, our Safety Officer will take you through it shortly. Still, we know the code is only part of a much needed journey to ensuring full inclusion and equality at this meeting. The stage in history has not yet arrived where we can act as if we are equal. There are barriers to inclusion that still need taking down. Based on research led by our very own Program and Deputy Program Chairs we now know that having more female symposia leads results in more female presenters at a conference, period. Therefore, IMCC5 is the first IMCC to have a 20% registration discount for female symposia leads. I hope we can extend this registration in the future.
International Marine Kids Congress attendees starting of IMCC5 learning about the importance of seagrass ecosystems!
We also know that it is harder for parents, especially women, to attend conferences. Participation in STEM fields should not be skewed towards a certain gender and that is why we are pleased to be offering multiple childcare options at IMMC5. Children from the age of 3 are able to attend a local daycare centre at a reduced rate and those aged 7-14 are taking part in the first ever IMKC, that’s the International Marine Kids Congress. IMKC participants have a full range of activities planned for the week and at times you will be sharing the Congress floor with them! I expect to see as many of you as possible at the IMKC poster session which takes place in this room immediately preceding the IMCC poster session on Wednesday evening. Thank you to the magnificent team who have put IMKC together. It promises to set a gold standard for integrating the marine conservationists of the future in our community.
Finally, we’re lucky enough to have what I think is a truly game-changing event as part of the congress. Situated on the conference floor, and fully integrated in our scientific program, Make for the Planet Borneo is going to disrupt IMCC like it has never been disrupted before. And that’s a good thing. Hosted by the incredible Conservation X-Labs, Make for the Planet is a team competition, or hackathon, to create hardware and software solutions to specific conservation challenges. In this case, those relating to the ocean. Teams from all across the region will be working for the duration of IMCC5 to solve global conservation challenges through creative and transformative solutions that harness emerging science and technology, entrepreneurship, and design. I urge you to take some time from the type of scientific program you are accustomed to engage with our makers as they hack marine conservation.
That’s what is new for IMCC, but before I finish I also wanted to emphasise how, for me at least, IMCC is more than just a week of activity. It’s also a chance to reboot what we do as marine conservationists, both individually and as a community. It’s all too easy to fall into a routine as we rush from meeting to meeting, commitment to commitment, deadline to deadline. This week is a chance to pause and assess how we got here and where we want to go next. We will all do this in our own way and I hope you will finish this week inspired, ready to take positive action for the oceans. But, if you don’t mind, I’d like to share how I got here today, as it relates to one future action I’d like to see for our community which I think we can all work on during and after this congress.
I’m standing here because I was given an opportunity. In 2007, I was desperate to get work experience to meet an enrollment requirement for a postgraduate degree in coastal management. I emailed about 200 people who I thought might take on volunteers knowing it was a bit of a long shot and that I may not be able to get the experience I needed. But, one replied… Professor Steve Oakley did not just enthusiastically offer me the incredibly generous chance to work, but he also offered to accommodate and feed me for four months, and pay all my travel expenses. This was a godsend, because at the age of 24 I did not have the financial capacity to volunteer on of those internship schemes where you pay for the privilege. When I arrived in Kota Kinabalu, Borneo to work for a small, coastal NGO, I found I wasn’t the only volunteer Steve was helping get experience. There were others from France, Australia, and indeed Malaysia. He was supporting all of our costs from his own pocket.
IMCC5 delegates in the marine protected area (MPA) community forum talking. Attendees from all over the world shared valuable opinions to forward the discussion on MPA science.
As a result of the opportunity Steve had given me, I got on the postgraduate program. The postgraduate degree then allowed me another opportunity. I was awarded a place on a fully funded PhD program. And then, another opportunity. The doctoral program funded me to go to my first IMCC, and my second. Through the recognition I was getting at the congresses, and through the attainment of my PhD, I was then able to get my first faculty position. Eventually I was elected to the Board of the Society for Conservation Biology Marine Section, and so here I stand. All these opportunities, starting from that given to me by Professor Steve Oakley when he decided to give me a chance to fulfill my passion.
And a lot of people are lucky enough to fulfill a passion like mine… if they look like me. If they come from where I come from. If they were born into what I was born into.
Professor Oakley recognised your passion wherever you came from, and supported it, but the opportunities of fully funded PhDs with full conference travel and the career progression that brings are not available to all.
This IMCC we made more Travel Awards than ever before, but still we could only fund roughly 20 of over 70 applications. That’s 50 people from low and middle income countries who did not have the opportunity to attend this congress. Of roughly 75 last minute withdrawals of those with accepted abstracts, over two thirds were also from low and middle income countries. That’s at least another 50 people who won’t get the opportunity to take part in conference networking that eventually grabs them that crucial first job in marine conservation. And this isn’t a phenomena exclusive to IMCC5, a similar rate of travel award failures and last minute withdrawals are seen at each IMCC and many other international congresses I know. There were over 100 withdrawals at IMCC4, and I hope the slightly reduced rate this time is in part due to our holding the first IMCC in a part of the world where lack of access to funding for long distance travel is such an issue.
So, I think we can reboot on this issue this week. Business as usual is not working despite increased travel award funding. Too many people from low and middle and income countries are denied access to participation in STEM fields. Too many people, with the same passion as you and I for marine conservation, do not have equal opportunities. Conferences doing what they can do and trying to do a bit better year on year is no longer an effective strategy, it ever were.
IMCC5 Conference Chair Edward Hind-Ozan giving this opening speech to welcome everyone to Kuching!
We have the minds, attitudes, and I believe capacity in this room and community to bring equality to the work that we love. If you represent a funding body, are there ways you could restructure your operations to provide future opportunities to everyone with a passion for ocean conservation? If you are a researcher, is there a way you could write your next funding bid so that you are sitting next to more of your low and middle income country colleagues at IMCC6 than you are at IMCC5? If you represent a large institution, is there are twinning program you could set up to allow those at smaller institutions greater opportunities? These are the type of questions we can ask and begin to answer this week. I would be so grateful if you could join me in this pursuit.
Professor Steve Oakley sadly passed away in December 2016. Steve knew only a global community could address the global issues facing the oceans. An IMCC that could be attended by anybody as passionate about the oceans as he, you, and I is what he would have wanted. Let us honor his legacy this week and beyond.
Thank you. Do great science. Network, network, and network again. Make lifelong friends. Become part of a community. Make marine science matter. Have a wonderful IMCC.