Climate Change, Environment, New Data

From ocean observations to public benefit: New horizons with OECD surveys

4 minute read

By Claire Jolly ( & James Jolliffe (, Directorate for Science, Technology and Innovation (OECD)

Oceans, just like tropical rainforests or the polar icecaps, are essential for life on our planet. In the fight against climate change, sustained ocean observations are becoming critical to help better understand the ocean’s role as a climate regulator and driver of weather events.

More than half of the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean and over 90% of the heat caused by human-based greenhouse gasses have been absorbed by the ocean so far, with dramatic impacts in terms of biodiversity loss and sea ice reduction. Observations also help keep track of the effects of human activities on oceans, such as pollution and accidents.

Oceans are now very much at the centre of policy dialogue on climate change, leading to calls to set up and sustain critical ocean observing infrastructures nationally and internationally. Most ocean observation programmes are supported by public expenditure in the form of research projects, with buoys, research vessels and satellites. However, contrary to other systems such as weather monitoring setups, long-term financing plans that sustain observing programmes and infrastructures into the future are rarely implemented, meaning that crucial data collection programmes may be discontinued abruptly in many parts of the world.

Making the economic case for oceans

Assessing the value of the data collected through ocean observation programmes is essential to evaluating the appropriate form and magnitude of public expenditure (OceanObs19, 2020; Weller et al., 2019; OECD, 2019; Rayner 2019). Various studies have attempted to capture the benefits of observations for research and operational purposes (see an overview in OECD, 2019). The societal value generated from in-situ observations in Europe is described by European Marine Board (2021), which reports that observations cost Europe around EUR 1.5 billion per year and generate an array of important but yet unquantified benefits.

Ocean observations sit at the base of a complex value chain of inputs which together provide public benefit (Figure 1). The data flowing from observations at the base of the pyramid in Figure 1 provide crucial inputs to scientific research and operational services. The benefits of the data accrue at both local and truly global scales, from improving foundational knowledge of ecosystems to understanding ocean processes that affect our climate. The information derived from observations data is then used in a range of public policy arenas (including in the OECD Sustainable Ocean Economy database) and supports commercial activities, yielding efficiencies, safety benefits and opportunities to reduce costs in areas such as shipping and fisheries, and in pollution tracking. All of this generates benefits for the public.

Figure 1: From ocean observations to public benefit

Source: European Marine Board (2021), Sustaining in situ Ocean Observations in the Age of the Digital Ocean

An original OECD survey

The OECD is exploring the use and reuse of publicly available marine data via user surveys, including and beyond the scientific communities involved in their collection. The aim is to support the development of robust economic evidence on ocean observations across countries, partnering with the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) and the broader ocean observing communities. This exercise also contributes to the ongoing United Nations Decade on Ocean Sciences for Sustainable Development.

Figure 2: Public marine data are used across a range of UK industries, including several that are expanding ocean economic activities, such as offshore wind and marine renewable energy

Count of industries selected by respondents weighted by the importance of each industry in the respondents’ overall activities

Source:  Jolly, C., J. Jolliffe, C. Postlethwaite, and E. Heslop (2021), “Value chains in public marine data: A UK case study”, OECD Science, Technology and Industry Working Papers, No. 2021/11, OECD Publishing, Paris,

A first OECD survey and case study conducted in the United Kingdom, with the UK Marine Environmental Data and Information Network, suggests that the value chains associated with reuse of ocean observations data are complex and wide ranging (Jolly, Jolliffe, Postlethwaite and Heslop, 2021). The qualitative and quantitative results provide information on the spread of marine data usage in different sectors of the UK economy and beyond (Figure 2). Using systemised value chains, it maps out how marine data flow from diverse fields of use, such as climate science or conservation, to actions actually taken, in coastal planning decisions, for instance, or managing marine resources.

The offshore wind industry, for example, reuses a wide range of data – from biological to hydrographic data – to inform operations, analyse risk, validate data from other sources, and feed into marine planning decisions. The benefits include productivity gains, better environmental performance and improved ocean governance.

Next steps

Such studies help to outline and characterise the value chains of ocean observations data and pave the way for future assessments of the monetary value of the benefits. Further OECD surveys and case studies are planned for Portugal and Belgium in 2022, with more to come in 2023. The OECD and the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) are also working on methodologies that would be suitable for realising ocean observations data valuations with the objective of providing guidance to ocean observations analysts and policymakers. Such studies and others on the costs and benefits of ocean observing infrastructures will contribute valuable evidence on the value of ocean observations data to society.