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Interview with Donatella Castelli on virtual research environments supporting Blue Growth

Donatella Castelli is the project coordinator of the European research project BlueBRIDGE: Building Research environments for fostering Innovation, Decision making, Governance and Education to support Blue Growth. Co-financed by the Research and Innovation programme of the European Union (EU) Horizon 2020, the project ran from September 2015 until February 2018 and received a total of EUR 5 million of EU funding.

Picture showing sustainable practices for aquacultures


Interview with Donatella Castelli on virtual research environments supporting Blue Growth

As the project has just recently come to an end and published its final review, we have asked Donatella to tell us more on the achievements of the project.

Donatella, what is the first and primary objective of BlueBRIDGE?

The goal of BlueBRIDGE was to develop a set of Virtual Research Environments bringing together various stakeholders (scientists, data managers, educators & experts but also policy-makers and the private sector) from different disciplines, such as, for example, fisheries, biology, economics, statistics and the environment, around one single theme: the sustainable growth in the marine and maritime sectors, or the so-called “Blue Growth”. The objective was to exploit existing data and computing infrastructures in order to increase the scientific understanding of the marine environment,provide a better ground for informed advice to competent authorities and involved stakeholders and encourage a sustainable management of the marine resources.

Did the project meet its goal?

Yes! Absolutely and to be honest I can say that it went way beyond my expectations!

The overall objective was fully met: 66 Virtual Research Environments (VREs) are now operational and used on a regular basis by over  3000 users across 32 countries from 124 different organizations. In many cases, their potential impact on the areas addressed is huge!

Through this network of VREs, today BlueBRIDGE has become a unique knowledge hub. With dynamic access to remote data capture and a collaborative production of scientific knowledge, it provides services supporting fish stock assessment processes, performed and consumed by fisheries scientists, managers, policy makers and industry representatives. It helps them make informed decisions,to  protect a specific fish species for instance, or establish fishing quotas.

The data and tools now made available are also key to increase the competitiveness of the aquaculture sector. It enables companies in the sector to maximize their growth rate, reduce costs and minimize their impact on the environment. This is of tremendous importance as we know that today, aquaculture is one of the fastest growing, food-production sectors, providing over 50% of the world’s consumption of fish.  

Additionally, BlueBRIDGE provides information that helps countries to prioritize their future planning of marine protected areas, by taking data on the seafloor features into consideration. The tools developed by the project enable the authorities and policy makers to track aquatic activities and biodiversity conservation, raise environmental indicators, support spatial management and monitor the impact of policy decisions.

Finally, by sharing resources from several scientific contexts in a transparent way, BlueBRIDGE allows the structuring of high quality and scientifically up-to-dated educational activities. The project has demonstrated how, by relying on e-Infrastructure and VREs, it is possible to smoothly and fastly transfer results from the research and business sectors to the educational one. It also offers students remote computational facilities to execute experiments, providing datasets visualization and analysis facilities.

Which achievement of the project makes you the most proud of?

BlueBRIDGE has provided very solid solutions to a number of existing problems. I am proud of loads of outcomes, not just one!

For example, BlueBRIDGE helped both scientists and the public to understand the phenomenon of the invasion of the pufferfish in the Mediterranean area. Thanks to data mining techniques, BlueBRIDGE has been able to estimate the spread of this pufferfish in the Mediterranean Sea and to develop a general purpose approach, which can also be applied to other species. It was exhilarating for me to see how our research project was useful, knowing that the invasion of this pufferfish is wreaking huge damage on the Mediterranean marine ecosystems, to people’s health, and also the fisheries. 

A second source of pride is the Global Record of Stocks and Fish (GRSF). This is a service built in strict collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations. It enables a global and transparent inventory of stocks and fisheries. Previously inexistent, the service is a tremendous step-forward with great potential to support the challenges such as the traceability of food. Indeed a unique identification of stocks and fisheries under a shared standard could be the pillar for blockchain technologies to develop seafood traceability solutions. As such it also promises to stimulate responsible consumer practices.

Finally, to pick one last concrete outcome, I have been very proud of the way BlueBRIDGE has involved SMEs. Our project  has run an open call for SMEs to reduce the gaps between private companies and data e-infrastructures. The call, originally not planned, raised interest in the SMEs even though no support funds to participate in the call were available. 5 SMEs have been engaged through this call: they had the opportunity to exploit the BlueBRIDGE VREs in the period. The call for SMEs demonstrated that VREs are valuable tools for SMEs and that SMEs are interested in these kinds of tools.

How does BlueBRIDGE fit into an Open Science framework?

By relying on the federation of resources from different existing data and computing infrastructures, BlueBRIDGE has developed an open data and service marketplace for interdisciplinary communities related to Blue Growth challenges.

The approach used has been fully Open Science compliant. Attention was drawn to the development of services for simplifying data management, the use of standards, data sharing and adoption of FAIR data management practices. At each step of the knowledge production process a great attention has been given to enable the reproducibility and reusability of the analysis and experimental activities.

The project is over now: so what’s next? How will you build upon the successes of BlueBRIDGE?

The EU funding has been allocated to BlueBRIDGE for a 30 months period and this period is now over.  But following this impetus the project will be able to continue. For instance, our portal will be maintained at least for the next three years. With a total amount of around 400 content pieces produced during the project lifetime, our website has become the reference points for data practitioners in the Blue Growth area willing to approach the e-infrastructure world. This bridge between the Blue Growth sector and Data e-infrastructures should be maintained to continue to growth and evolve. 

Moreover the BlueBRIDGE Consortium is implementing a set of plans to guarantee the sustainability of the project results which will continue delivering impact in several domains. In particular an expanded FIRMS partnership (Fisheries and Resources Monitoring System, which Secretariat is hosted by FAO) will take ownership of the BlueBRIDGE developed GRSF including opening a collaborative membership to key BlueBRIDGE contributors.

FIRMS also plans to adopt the Tuna Atlas VRE with support from BlueBRIDGE contributors. FAO will also continue to use eLearning tools developed by BlueBRIDGE to offer free on-line training on selected stock assessment methods. Finally the pilot Regional Database (RDB) developed by BlueBRIDGE for the Western Central Atlantic Fishery Commission (WECAFC) will be presented at the WECAFC Data and Statistics Working Group in May 2018, towards possible recommendations concerning the adoption of this RDB by the WECAFC Commission in September 2018.

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