Interview with Dr Tasman Crowe- Leading the way for sustainability in UCD

Image Credit: Dr Tasman Crowe

In conservation with Dr Tasman Crowe, Jade Norton discusses sustainability in UCD and policy in marine conservation in Ireland.

Sustainability is a way of life for many, and for Dr Tasman Crowe it is also his career. Beginning with a degree in Zoology, he was then afforded the opportunity to travel to Australia to do a PhD with a leading marine biologist who taught him “a lot about doing good science, how to find questions and look at things in a structured way”. He was instilled with the knowledge that all good science is underlined by good decision making. After this Crowe completed a Postdoctoral study in the Northern Territories on increasing stocks of a depleted sea snail species. However, he decided to move from such a niche interest to a broader area that focussed on human activities and how they influence and affect the environment. This led him to UCD, and eventually to becoming director of UCD Earth Institute where he is able to assess and measure these human impacts and feed the results into decision-making processes.

Crowe’s research in UCD has looked at testing how particular human activities or pressures impact on marine systems. For instance, he has investigated how nutrient run-off can combine with temperature and sedimentation to cause physical disturbances. He has done a lot of technical work on species that are present in marina, especially on seaweed, snails, and crabs, to see the consequences for the ecosystem from their presence. This research has provided him with the logic he has applied when creating governmental policies that aim to protect the environment beyond the case that is already there. He notes that it is in our best interest to take care of our marine systems “as if we allow our environment to be degraded we won’t be able to live as well and our health and wellbeing depends on it”.

Multidisciplinary work is crucial to expanding the reach of science and Crowe also works with social sciences and economists. In particular, he mentioned his work with John Brannigan of The School of English, Drama and Film. Together they have noted how changes to the environment influence the cultural value of the environment, which includes the way that it inspires art, literature and poetry. Changes in this can have huge impacts on societies’ health and wellbeing as there is a delicate balance to our sense of place in the world, which has become particularly apparent in the current climate. People are realising how much value we get from an unblemished and good environment around us.

Working as a marine biologist it is possible to focus solely on the biology components of the sea and not on the environmental consequences associated with it. Some people are solely fascinated by the biological intricacies around them and their valuable work gives a proper depth of knowledge for research to work from. There are other people who are more interested in bringing together the breadth of this knowledge and applying it in practical applications, or bringing it into argument around policy and governance to try furthering the human experience. Dr Crowe would be in the latter group and has focussed a lot of his recent work on building policy to help protect the marine environment.

The Earth Institute recently launched a new undergraduate sustainability degree in September 2020 that allows students to combine the economic, environmental and social dimensions of sustainability. This degree has been set up to allow students to understand sustainability in the context of the sciences and engineering, whilst also allowing them to have an understanding of the technicalities involved in implementing ideas in an economic and business dimension. The degree is broader than an ecology degree and has core modules in sustainability that are specialised over the 4 years.

Crowe worked alongside Jacqueline Corcoran of The School of Geography and others to bring this program together for the last 2-3 years. It was developed in light of the Sustainable Development Goals and aims to provide valuable training for the future. According to Crowe, there are few other courses in the world giving a similar education with the same level of disciplinarity. The feedback from the course seems to be incredibly positive from the first-year students despite the unique circumstances. 

The current trend of sustainability “needs more than just people doing it, but people doing it is very important”. Crowe notes how a groundswell of enthusiasm is needed to bring industry outside of individuals into the sustainability movement. Only once it is something that you cannot hide from will the opportunity be grasped by large industry. Few leaders have yet to emerge from society to put pressure on government to change the environment in terms of regulations and taxes because once this happens then the sustainable goals will start to become reality. 

Last year Crowe was asked to chair an expert committee on marine protected areas. He had a direct feed into policy by providing an evidence-based framework for the protection of the environment. This has been his biggest input on policy thus far and, with a group of 20 others, has spent the last year preparing a 300-page report that aims to guide the government on how to expand Ireland's network of marine protected areas. Currently, this is at 2.7% but should have been at 10% by 2020, and some of these pressures have now caused the national government to make a commitment to reach this level. In preparing the document, he spoke with many industry specialists, stakeholders, and representatives and it was presented to the government in late October 2020. The process of implementing any of the results of the report will now take at least two to three years, which he hopes to be involved in. 

He notes that the combination of research and policy was woven together into the report and it is based on evidence from many different sources. The group of people that put this report together are “soaked in this evidence” and have the expertise of time which was all distilled into the report, which is not just a document based on opinion but fact. Working in conservation can often result in controversial decisions, as declaring marine protected areas can have disruptive effects on people’s livelihoods and “ just need let them know that this is a valuable step to take and find an efficient solution”.  He notes that not all seas are given protected marine status, but some EU marine legislation does protect particular species wherever they are such as dolphins and whales. There are many invested parties that he has talked to that recognised the need for a healthy, productive and diverse ocean which provides some grounds for optimism. 

Covid-19 has both helped and hindered his work as people have had more time to realise the effect that they have on the environment from air travel and so forth, especially noted was the visible reduction in air pollution. He muses that businesses have now recognised how much more efficient and effective Zoom meetings can be instead of flying people around the world and this may have an inadvertent but positive effect on sustainability. The pandemic has shown that quite dramatic measures can be done to stave off serious disasters and the evidence for action is so strong that change is inevitable in the coming years.