Making the ‘Ivory Tower’ Part of Your MPA

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By Brad Barr, brad.barr [at]

In these times of limited resources, enlisting the assistance of partners has become essential to acquire the knowledge needed to establish and manage MPAs effectively.  There are few more valuable to us in this regard than our colleagues in the academic community. 

Colleges and universities are centers for research, creativity, and innovation.  Their raison d’etre is to think deeply about important stuff we don’t generally have the time to, to train the next generation of managers and scientists who will come to join our community of practice or collaborate with us in the future, and to seek out opportunities to make this education meaningful. 

MPAs can be a great place to conduct research, where what is learned can be applied directly to management issues and challenges.  Many of the management problems we face are “wicked”: problems that are difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize.  These are just the kind of problems that challenge our collective capacity to confront them effectively.  But these problems also make excellent and intriguing educational tools, particularly with regard to the multi-disciplinary approaches most of us must use routinely in MPA management. 

Many MPAs are also excellent places to conduct research simply because they are protected areas (when they are truly protected).  This provides researchers with “control areas” where the impacts of human activities, restricted or prohibited in some areas, can help identify and separate natural versus anthropogenic changes observed in the ecosystem.  MPAs may also be excellent research areas because we are likely to have infrastructure and operational capacity (such as vessels or facilities with basic laboratory and lodging for visiting scientists) that can help to provide “in-kind” support for research, and a staff of highly trained and experienced staff to assist and mentor student researchers. 

We have much to gain from training this next generation of scientists and managers in the “real world” in which we manage MPAs.  It is an investment in the future.  Someday, these will be the people we look to for key staff positions, or will hire to take over when retirement beckons.  This next generation has something to gain from us as well in these collaborations, expanding and building their networks of contacts and gaining the practical experience that will contribute to future career success.  If ever there was a “win-win” situation, it is collaborations such as these.

US National Marine Sanctuaries as a model

We all seek out this sort of partnership to one degree or another, but perhaps not enough, given the potential benefits.  For some tangible examples of how one MPA program is addressing this, the US National Marine Sanctuary System provides some potentially useful models to consider. 

In a search of the web pages of the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS), literally hundreds of excellent and productive site-based partnerships with university faculty and students are identified.  To help foster, expand, and better coordinate these efforts, a few years ago the ONMS established the National Marine Sanctuary University Partnership, with the stated goal to:

create and sustain a community that cultivates opportunities for collaboration among university faculty, students, and National Marine Sanctuaries in research, education, outreach, arts, culture, and professional development. 

Note particularly that this initiative — in recognition of the multiple Sanctuary mandates for not only management but education and outreach, research and monitoring, and maritime heritage — includes a broad spectrum of academic disciplines.  Universities are places that provide educational opportunities for more than just physical, chemical, and biological research in MPA-relevant disciplines.  They also offer training in many arenas relevant to MPA management.  Students who are pursuing degrees in environmental education, political science, law, journalism and even such disciplines as music and the visual arts engage in projects that could be of considerable value to MPA managers in successfully meeting these multiple mandates.  Universities represent an opportunity for “one-stop shopping” for partnerships.

One particular initiative, conducted through the NMS University Partnership, is worthy of special mention.  In 2008, the ONMS collaborated with California State University at Monterey Bay — under the auspices of and with funding from the National Center for Ecosystem Assessment and Synthesis (NCEAS) — to conduct a graduate-level seminar involving eight universities from around the country.  Concurrent, semester-long seminars were conducted at each university to examine the role of the ONMS in implementing ecosystem-based management (EBM) at its sites, and each university collaborated with one or more Sanctuaries to conduct a case study based on a core set of questions on EBM (  The following term, each of the universities sent participating faculty and two students to NCEAS in Santa Barbara, California, where students presented their work from the seminars and developed a synthesis report (available at the above URL).  The report summarized the collective findings and made recommendations on how the ONMS could strengthen implementation of EBM throughout its system. 

Given the ongoing evolution of EBM from theory to practice in MPAs, these findings and recommendations offer valuable, practical insights to MPA programs well beyond the National Marine Sanctuary system.  This was not only a valuable educational experience but also one that advanced an important element of effective management of MPAs. 

OK, it might be said, that is all well and good — but you need financial resources to make such collaborations successful.  True enough.  But this does not necessarily require funds from shrinking MPA budgets.  Universities are often better positioned to secure outside funding when they are partnering with institutions such as MPAs, where the outcomes involve tangible products important beyond their educational value.  Additionally, sources of government funding outside of operations budgets can sometimes be secured to support such work.  For example, the Nancy Foster Scholarships, funded through statutory mandate under the National Marine Sanctuary Act (, are being used by the ONMS to support graduate student research in the National Marine Sanctuaries. 

The ONMS has also more clearly begun to identify research opportunities among its sites to help guide faculty and students in identifying priority research needs (  This effort is being expanded to include not only traditional scientific research, but priority needs in the disciplines of education, outreach, socio-economics, and preserving maritime heritage resources in the sanctuaries.  When someone wants to establish a partnership with you, it is best for them to have some idea of what might be most valuable to you. 

University partners can strengthen public support

Beyond just the important task of acquiring deeper knowledge of the special places we manage, collaborating with universities can expand and strengthen the base of public support for your site.  Institutions of higher education are generally respected leaders within the communities they serve.  Beyond this leadership role, because university administrators and members of their faculties are routinely called upon by decision makers as “experts” when legislation is being developed, they have credibility and access when these same folks allocate funds for your program budget.  Having universities as partners who appreciate and value your MPA — i.e., for how it strengthens and expands the educational and career opportunities for their students — can have significant implications in demonstrating public support for your site.

Opportunities for MPA staff to continue their education

Universities can also be an important asset in providing professional development opportunities for your staff.  For MPA staff with appropriate credentials, an “adjunct” appointment to a university’s faculty provides not only a way to “give back” to the community in training the next generation; it also makes that person a part of the university community with enhanced access to explore possible collaborations of value to your site.  Offering staff the opportunity for continuing education at partner universities is another way of enhancing the skills and capacity of your management team.  For those of us who are “gray-beards”, simply engaging with students can help sustain one’s own enthusiasm for the work — especially important for those of us who have been around for a while and have gravitated toward the inevitable perspective of cynicism.

Notwithstanding our lamentable lack of funding, MPA managers possess something of considerable value to offer universities, and we can gain much from seeking out and fostering such partnerships.  While the day-to-day work of just meeting the requirements of managing an MPA can be a daunting prospect, the additional time and effort to engage in partnerships can help to expand and enhance what you can achieve.  Universities can be a powerful ally and a generator of much-needed creativity and innovation, supplying additional resources to supplement your current efforts.  If you are going to put this considerable time and energy into a partnership, it pays to pick your partners wisely.

Brad Barr is a “gray-beard” MPA practitioner with more than 35 years experience in MPA and coastal zone management, and serves as adjunct faculty of a graduate program in marine and coastal management.  His (sometimes curmudgeonly) opinions expressed here are entirely his own, and do not reflect, in any way, the views or positions of any agency or organization with which he is affiliated.  He writes these occasional contributions in the wee hours of the morning from his home in New England.

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