Considering that oceans cover more than 70 percent of the planet, it's hard to believe that until the late 1980s there was little funding for ocean research, and even less evidence of science being linked to ocean policy. But that changed five years ago, when Stanford, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute joined forces to create the Center for Ocean Solutions. "If you're trying to save nature, you have to think about oceans because most of nature is oceans," said Julie Packard, the executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and a trustee of the David & Lucile Packard Foundation, which helped establish the Center with a major grant in 2007.

Packard recalled the origins of the Center during a celebration of how far the research partnership has advanced, as she moderated an Oct. 4 roundtable discussion about the challenges facing the mysterious and valuable ecosystems that cover most of the Earth. (See photos of the event.)

"We depend on oceans for the air we breathe and the sustenance we consume," Stanford Provost John Etchemendy said in welcome remarks. "It's hard to think of a more worthy subject for research, discovery and outreach."

The Center for Ocean Solutions is a unique collaboration among scientists, engineers and lawyers. "The Center is able to focus policy expertise, research acumen, technological know-how and educational outreach on some of our formidable ocean challenges," Stanford Woods Institute Co-Director Jeff Koseff said by way of introduction. This potent blend of approaches has resulted in measurable impacts ranging from rapid pathogen-detecting technology that promises safer swimming and surfing to novel legal analyses that shows agencies and policymakers how to address ocean acidification and increase coastal ecosystem resiliency.

With its inventive and interdisciplinary approach, the Center for Ocean Solutions stood apart from the start.  "There's nothing like it," Center Science Director Larry Crowder said before the roundtable. "We're doing something entirely new. When we talk to people from Silicon Valley, they say 'Oh, you're like a start-up.'"

"We're willing to reframe and shake up the established dialogue," Center Executive Director Meg Caldwell said before the event. "We want decision makers to say 'This is a group that's thinking differently. Let's go to them."

Washington State Senator and roundtable panelist Kevin Ranker is one of those decision makers. For Ranker, coastal ocean resources are closely linked to jobs such as those in Washington's shellfish industry. Ranker praised the Center's research products, particularly a comprehensive ocean acidification report tailored to his state's circumstances. "Because of the work of Oceans Solutions and others, we were able to get real-time data," Ranker said. "We were able to show very specific job connections and linkages between economic drivers and the environment." That, Ranker said, resulted in millions of dollars of state funding for an ocean acidification research center and an ocean resource management and conservation trust fund.

State and provincial leaders from the U.S. and Canada have since asked Ranker how to replicate his ocean policy success. "These things should not be Democratic or Republican values," Ranker said. "They should be core values."

Just as the Center's approach has changed the way policymakers look to scientists, it has shifted the way ocean researchers think about policy, said panelist Melissa Foley, a research fellow at the U.S. Geological Survey Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center. "It has fundamentally changed the way I do science and ask questions," Foley, a former Center early career fellow, said. "You can't just hand your science to a decision maker and say 'Do what you will.'"

Foley's learning experience represents a key component of the Center's mission – to prepare current and future leaders to solve the most important, globally relevant ocean challenges. "If we really want to make an impact and make progress, we have to groom the next generation of ocean leaders," said Mark Carr, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The Center for Ocean Solutions educates emerging leaders through programs such as the Monterey Area Institutions' Network for Education (MARINE), a collaborative initiative of seven educational institutions to enhance graduate marine education with real-world problem solving skills. The Center helps to train existing leaders through highly tailored programs like the Fisheries Leadership and Sustainability Forum for federal fisheries managers and special workshops for coastal decision makers and managers focused on climate change preparation and adaptation.