By Leah Robertson, posted on October 24, 2016

I didn’t learn science at the International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC)

I didn’t learn science at the International Marine Conservation Congress (@IMCC2016). That is, I learned powerprivilege and equity, and how it is intricately tied to science and conservation.

Visual communication from an IMCC workshop. 

In the last year I worked with students who were facing a number of issues, ranging from academic difficulty to financial aid. Many of the people I worked with were marginalized and this fueled my passion for challenging inequality. This type of inequality occurs in so many ways that when you are not oppressed by it, it can be all too easy to overlook. In a post-secondary setting this begins with being able to financially access education and continues into barriers that occur in the classroom. Over the past few years I felt my love for marine science and equity work were in silos, until the IMCC4 opening plenary.
Michelle LaRue (@drmichellelarue), Jean Wiener, Max Lioboiron (@MaxLiboiron), and Asha de Vos (@ashadevos) were the most incredibly diverse and inspiring marine conservation panel who all understood and explained how power and privilege affect the way we do research. They spoke about the realities of being in developing countries and how so many brilliant minds cannot access education. Furthermore, when scientists come to poor economic areas to do research, the voice of those from the area is often left unheard and not included. These types of relationships can be incredibly damaging and as researchers we owe it to be conscientious about how our work affects marginalized communities.
It is one thing to recognize diversity, inclusion and equity but it is another thing to actually demonstrate it. From what I witnessed at IMCC4 the organizers worked incredibly hard to uphold these values. This is not surprising when you have an organizer like Sam Oester (@SamOester) whose science is always integrated into tackling barriers for marginalized people. Sam helped set the tone for the conference and from what conference attendees can only imagine was countless hours of work. A brilliant aspect is conference organizers didn’t do it by themselves. Community experts, such as Inclusion NL, helped conference organizers by providing support and insight to make the event more accommodating and accessible to participants.

Leah Robertson

Careful thought had also been put into food options, including consideration of dietary restrictions and carbon footprint impacts. I hope to see other conferences use these decisions as a benchmark to meet and even improve upon. The cherry on top of it all is the announcement that the next IMCC conference will be held in Sarawak, Malaysia - the first time the conference will be held outside of Europe and North America. Besides showcasing a beautiful area, it will hopefully spur researchers from small island countries to present their work on an international platform.
The reality is we need to work harder as marine conservationists and be better allies of marginalized communities. The four speakers brought this to the attention of hundreds. Their work on these issues doesn’t begin and end at IMCC4. They pave the way by carrying these values in their everyday research and work. This means consistently challenging norms and being critical of our science and actions. However, after being a part of IMCC4 I can soundly say there is no better time to combine equity work with marine conservation, and I won’t be doing it alone.

Leah Robertson is a marine biologist and alumni of Memorial University of Newfoundland. Her research interests include deep-sea invertebrates and sustainable aquaculture. Her work outside academia includes activism for equity in post-secondary institutions (#edu4all) which bridged her passion into learning about inequalities that occur in science. Along with this she has worked extensively with a local catch and release aquarium (#NLlovesOceans) in Newfoundland, which aims to promote marine conservation through public engagement with marine animals. Currently, Leah is involved with the Back to the Sea Society (#BacktotheSea), a group working towards opening a public aquarium in her home of Nova Scotia. You can find Leah on Twitter @robertsonleah10!