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Q&A: Paul Bunje of X Prize on solving ocean acidification

Q&A: Paul Bunje of X Prize on solving ocean acidification

Posting in Sustainability

Bunje has a Ph.D. in evolution and molecular genetics. He also spent a few years in Washington. But what does he think will help solve ocean acidification? A contest.

Paul Bunje works at the fascinating -- and frustrating -- intersection of science and policy. As senior director of prize development and ocean health at X Prize, Bunje is spearheading an effort to solve the climate change problem of ocean acidification. X Prize today is announcing a $2 million prize to create breakthrough pH sensing technology that would help measure the worldwide scope of the issue.

I spoke recently with Bunje about the newest X Prize, the problem of ocean acidification and connecting science and policy. Below are excerpts from our interview.

You're trained in both science and policy. Talk about your background and explain how these two areas work together.

I'm trained in biology and got my Ph.D. from Berkeley in evolution and molecular genetics. I worked primarily on the evolutionary response to environmental change in various invertebrates. As fascinating as diving into the world of marine and fresh water snails and fish could be, there isn't a great deal of application toward the challenges of our time.

I ducked out to do an American Association for the Advancement of Science fellowship. I worked for a couple of years on ecosystem services policy and water policy. Because of my background in the impacts of the environmental -- and specifically climatic change -- on various biological and ecological processes and species, I was pulled more into policy. It was an opportunity to take my expertise in science and appreciation for what scientists can provide for society and apply that in the form of climate change and its impacts on our planet. It was about taking some of the most dramatic and concerning issues, not just of our time but of any time, and framing them in a way that we could act upon them as a society. Science and policy don't necessarily work together. But they're two of our most enduring and core societal institutions, so being able to blend those proved challenging and rewarding.

I met Mary Nichols, who was then at UCLA and is now chair of the California Air Resources Board, the state agency that implements climate change policy. We hatched a plan to create a center at UCLA that would be an academic effort to translate science for society, policy and businesses and identify critical large-scale research that was a great need to decision makers. I spent a number of years at UCLA working on climate science and policy and trying to coordinate interdisciplinary research at UCLA and various universities in southern California and eventually throughout the state of California.

A year ago this opportunity came up at X Prize, which has a focus on driving solutions towards the world's biggest challenges. Being focused on ocean acidification, it was the perfect opportunity. Ocean acidification -- the evil twin of climate change -- is proving to be as dire a potential threat as you might imagine. The opportunity to begin to help lead some change in this field was something that ignited my passions and capitalized on my background and expertise.

You describe yourself as an "interface specialist," meaning you work to bridge the gap between research and practical solutions. What does that look like?

This is not something that's my idea alone. As the world moves faster and problems seem to increase at an exponential rate, knowledge isn't keeping pace. It's built into these silos. If you stovepipe society's great institutions -- the generation of knowledge through scientific research or the regulation of societal issues through government actions -- you're leaving so much of the potential value of the world on the table. Even more worrisome, you're leaving the ability of brilliant people to offer their insights to another sector of society that could use them.

There is so much good knowledge in science and in governments that bringing those two together is critical. It's absolutely central to being able to identify not just workable solutions, but the pathway for implementing those workable solutions. If you don't do that, then it's this classic process of throwing something over the fence and hoping. Say I'm a scientist doing great research and I've got some insight into something that can address ocean acidification. I published my paper and I even go to the trouble of testifying on Capitol Hill. But I've got no ability to put that into a framework that can be utilized by a congressional staffer for producing legislation or influencing rule-making in an agency. In fact, I probably don't even know what those terms mean. That gap is like a language barrier. This was the most enlightening part of spending a few years in Washington. You have to learn two different languages.

Being able to translate is one part of the skill. You can also help design programs and relationships between those silos of knowledge and solution. It's absolutely critical to being able to address any of our societal challenges. It's something we don't invest in. If there's nobody that owns this field, then it's not going to happen. That means we're not going to be able to keep pace with the exponential growth in problems.

What specific problem are you tackling now?

I'm concentrating on ocean acidification. About a quarter of the carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere is absorbed directly by the oceans. Carbon dioxide in water forms an acid as it dissolves. In the oceans, absorbing a quarter of the carbon dioxide we put up into the atmosphere can have dramatic consequences for the delicate chemical balance that all ocean life, and ultimately all life on the planet, depends on. As CO2 gets pulled into the sea, chemical reactions take place. First it forms carbonic acid, but that quickly turns into things like carbonate and bicarbonate. That's the base of the chemical reaction that creates shells for almost every organism in the sea. The CO2 absorbed into the ocean has caused an estimated global drop in the average pH of the ocean of about 30 percent. We are talking about a potentially life-altering change in the chemistry that underlies marine ecosystems. If we're getting close to 70 percent of the oxygen up in the atmosphere from the oceans, we're talking about something that our lives depend upon.

That's where the X Prize comes in. This is an issue scientists have sounded an alarm bell about, but there is little investment into their research. There are few tools we can use to study it, much less respond to the challenge. There is a tremendous under-investment in ocean acidification measurement tools. It requires investment for a technological breakthrough, so scientists and anybody with a concern for the oceans can start to measure and understand these rapid, drastic and potentially life-threatening challenges.

Talk about the X Prize and its newest challenge: The Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health X Prize, a $2 million global competition focused on ocean acidification.

In a nutshell, it's a competition for breakthrough pH sensors. It starts with the notion that you can't manage what you don't measure. Our ability to measure ocean pH is limited by the tools we have. There are a couple of decent sensors, but they tend to be expensive and difficult to use. They tend not to be accurate enough to measure the changes in ocean pH over time that we're seeing around the world. Those minor changes in pH have massive impacts on marine life. The amount of change we've seen globally in ocean pH is something on the order of going from an 8.2 to about an 8.1. That's a 25-30 percent shift. That amount of change, if that happened in your blood pH, could potentially be life-threatening. That could put you in the emergency room. That is also true with that delicate balance in marine life. If small organisms are struggling to make a shell, that change in the carbonate ions in the water could mean they put so much energy into building their shells that they're not able to reproduce.

That's where the need for cheap, accurate, easy-to-use sensors comes in and why X Prize stepped into the fray. A pH sensor is one tool that could prove the needs of ocean sensing in a way that, hopefully, will drive investment in ocean monitoring broadly. If we can start to incentivize the growth of industry, the growth of investments and the growth of attention to this problem through a prize competition, then what we can see is an exponential change in the amount of investment that we have in ocean monitoring.

What challenges remain as you try to bring together science and policy?

We didn't get into these problems overnight. These are the results of all the wonderful things we have in life today. Our wealth, health and technologies are a result of an energy economy that has pulled more people out of poverty in less time than ever before. But that energy that drives our economy has this civilization-threatening consequence of releasing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It could threaten our civilization and life in oceans. Solving this is going to require the same level of global, economic and social change. A pH sensor is the narrow tip of the spear. By growing the industry in ocean services, we can help create value that private industry can have an influence on. Once private industry starts to see that value, we can think of sustainable ways of managing that because we've got all sides working together.

Photo: (LJ)

Photo: GSG/Creative Juice

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure