Stand up for the ocean. Read Erik van Sebille’s inaugural lecture

‘How activistic can academics be?’

Erik van Sebille’s inaugural lecture from 16 May, 2023 as Professor of Oceanography & Public Engagement is now available online. Van Sebille is a renowned oceanographer and climate scientist with a focus on how ocean currents transport plastic, heat, marine organisms, and nutrients. He has always been very involved in science communication and public engagement in relation to his own research, and will now use this experience in academic research in the field.

Prof. Erik van Sebille

This chair is the first in the Netherlands to combine climate research, oceanography, and public engagement. To Van Sebille, it is a wonderful opportunity to connect his expertise in physical oceanography with his interest in public engagement, and passion for the ocean in general. “My ambition is to approach this unique professorial remit in a holistic manner”, he says. “I want the combination of the two fields to lead to insights that would stay beyond reach if they were done individually.”

Extraordinary entry point

Van Sebille is convinced that the ocean can provide an extraordinary entry point for public engagement on sustainability. “Most people have a notion of the ocean as exciting, mysterious, perhaps even romantic. There’s a reason why so many people go on beach holidays, and are then willing to pay a premium for a hotel room with ocean view.”

At the same time, the ocean is under serious threat. “It is facing a double whammy of warming and acidifying under increased carbon dioxide levels”, Van Sebille explains. In addition, there is of course plastic pollution, and our economic system has allowed exploitation of the ocean on an unprecedented scale. Industrial-scale fishing, shipping and other marine activities are detrimental to marine life.

Activistic academics

Although the scientific evidence for the greenhouse effect has been known for almost a century now, the academic community has failed to avert the climate crisis. The research question Van Sebille is especially interested in what role academics could play, and what they can do to turn the tide. “How do we fit into the narrative? In a society where people glue themselves to traffic intersections, private jets, and fine arts, how effective is it for academics to be activistic?”