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IWC Acting Chair Dr. Nick Gales on Science, Whaling, and Arctic Diplomacy in the Southern Seas

By Jonathan Choi

On Thursday, April 4, 2024, Dr. Nick Gales, Acting Chair of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), joined the Ocean Diplomacy Working Group and the Rethinking Diplomacy Program for a webinar on the role of science and scientists in international ocean diplomacy. Gales is a leading global practitioner in marine and polar science and diplomacy; he is the Chair of the Australian Antarctic Science Council and has served as Australia’s Chief Antarctic Scientist and as President of the International Society of Marine Mammalogy. During the webinar, Gales outlined some of the uses and abuses of science in diplomacy, emphasizing the importance of trustworthy or “good science”. In Gales’ view, high quality, unbiased science is central to ocean diplomacy and critical to the long-term effectiveness of treaties and conservation efforts.

Gales began the discussion with recollections of the intense debate over Japan’s “scientific” whaling program, in which hundreds of minke were harvested whales annually with the stated purpose of understanding and improving the management of whale stocks. In 2013, while Gales was the Director of the Australian Antarctic Division, Australia sued Japan at the International Court of Justice, alleging that the program was not in fact scientific and was therefore illegal under IWC regulations. During the case, the Court delved deeply into the program’s stated goals as well as the intricacies of how research was designed and executed, ultimately ruling that the program could be considered scientific, but that the design did not reasonably meet its stated scientific goals and therefore had to be shut down. According to Gales, “the case went to the heart of what science is and how it is prosecuted.”

Reflecting on the testimony he gave on behalf of Australia in the highly political context of the case, Gales explained that often “when science is conducted within the arena of fierce political debate, the mechanisms designed to achieve objectivity and political impartiality invariably underperform or fail completely… Technicalities and uncertainties are unreasonably amplified, and the burden of proof is shifted, to where science looks artificially contested or unresolved.” He urged scientists to remember and acknowledge the vulnerabilities of science, including the potential for personal or political biases. “We all know this story. As a community, scientists are often reluctant to acknowledge this weakness in our craft, particularly in relation to our own part in that craft.”

Given diplomacy’s invariability political context, Gales offered scientists this advice: “Understand your role in decision making. It may be as a science advisor or as a science literature diplomat responsible for representing a national position. Acknowledge the vulnerabilities of all scientists to unconscious or deliberate personal and or political bias and understand how those weaknesses are exploited. No matter what your role, avoid falling into the seductive traps of science selective advice, particularly those associated with over or understating the limitations and uncertainties around research findings. Major reform rarely ever happens by revolution—it’s a long game.”

Geopolitical considerations weigh heavily on scientists working in the diplomatic sphere. While Gales acknowledged that the diplomatic challenges around humanity’s many activities in the world’s oceans are daunting, he also sees promising signs that some of the oldest treaties, such as the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), are still relevant. For instance, despite recent geopolitical tension, China and Russia continue to comply with reciprocal research station inspection protocols and engage on Antarctic issues through the ATS.

Though there is no panacea to what Gales terms, “the world’s wicked problems,” scientific engagement is essential to helping us chart our way to a more sustainable future. Gales recalled that during the debate over Japan’s scientific whaling program, “…many [IWC] Scientific Committee scientists tired of the politicized, seemingly futile, and endless debate, and simply stopped going to those parts of the meeting. They withdrew from discussions…[but] what is said and formerly recorded in the record of those debates or in the published peer-reviewed literature really matters. And the efforts made to present and defend objective scientific findings may not always be apparent in the short or even medium term but ultimately, there will be a reckoning of the facts. This may be purely the eventual triumph of the scientific process or, in the case of the dispute over special permit whaling, it was in the form of the application of international law.” Not only must scientists engage to ensure science-informed decision making, but there’s also an incredible need for science-literate decision makers, who understand the power and shortcomings of scientific inquiry.

This discussion was moderated by Rafaella Lobo, PhD candidate in Marine Science and Conservation at the Nicholas School of the Environment, and was organized by Jonathan Choi, a PhD candidate and attorney working in the Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab led by Dr. Pat Halpin. The Ocean Diplomacy Working Group was conceived by RDP graduate fellow Brianna Elliott and launched in 2023 through a grant from Duke’s Office of Global Affairs that includes members from several schools and programs across Duke, including the Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke Law, the Duke Marine Lab.

The group includes an interdisciplinary mix of students, faculty, and practitioners at Duke who are interested in the complex political and social issues, institutional arrangements, agreements, and negotiations involved in ocean diplomacy. Their goal is to improve connections between science, scholarly research, and the diplomatic process so that policy makers and diplomats have the most up to date scientific information as they craft policy and international agreements with enormous impact across ecosystems, cultures, national borders, and international fora. The Duke Rethinking Diplomacy Program is grateful for the longstanding support of the Josiah Charles Trent Memorial Foundation.  

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