Strengthen the global science and knowledge base to reduce marine plastic pollution

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Per-Olof Busch, Maro Luisa Schulte, Nils Simon.


  • There is need for a global scientific advisory mechanism or body on marine litter and microplastics in order to strengthen the global science and knowledge base and to improve scientific policy advice across the entire plastics life cycle.
  • The organizational design of such a scientific advisory mechanism or body is seen as more important than its institutional setting in terms of strength and effectiveness. 
  • The impact of a global scientific advisory mechanism or body is ensured through credibility, legitimacy, salience and agility.
  • Based on what successful global science-policy interfaces look like and the evaluated performance of all typical key functions of such interfaces, the recommendation is:
    1. To establish an intergovernmental panel if the aim is continuance and stability with secure funding.
    2. To establish a multilateral agreement if the aim is to keep costs and administrative burdens low.
    3. To establish an intergovernmental organization if the aim is to establish a mechanism in short time; to limit additional costs and burdens; and to ensure the establishment of a mechanism, given that all other aims are subordinated to this aim.


Scientists, policymakers and stakeholders across the globe have voiced requests for strengthening and improving the knowledge base on marine litter and microplastics. 

These requests often include demands for a scientific advisory mechanism or body that operates as a two-way interface between science and policy, informing both policy and decision-making to globally combat marine litter, while also guiding researchers to relevant political processes and stakeholders. This will of course also contribute to awareness raising and motivate action, while steering effective political intervention. For marine litter there is also the specific need for a life cycle approach that covers all stages in the plastics life cycle. 

According to learnings and theories from successful science-policy interfaces in a global context, we know a little bit about what key functions are needed in order to enable efficiency. This typically includes: timely and regular knowledge assessments; processes that catalyze knowledge generation; enabled exchange between actors; facilitation of access to and exchange of knowledge; enabled capacities to conduct continued scientific assessments. 

The analysis of current global and regional assessments on marine litter finds that there is indeed sufficient scientific knowledge to warrant political action and further research at all levels. Comprehensive global assessments are undertaken or in process by UNEP, OECD, SAPEA (Science Advice for Policy by European Academies). However, there is room for improvement when seeing science reach into policies and an urgent need to learn more about levers and entry points for effective political and technical interventions across the entire life cycle of plastics. The existing landscape of global and regional science needs to be improved, as bodies and mechanisms per now are highly fragmented, not institutionally coordinated and thus too weak to enable the core functions of proper science-policy governance.

Primarily, weaknesses highlighted are knowledge gaps on both regional and global scale due to few regional assessments, lack of comprehensive life cycle approaches, and neglection of scientific knowledge in policy responses. The exchange between actors, access to shared knowledge and lack of regularity and coordination between existing mechanisms or bodies impairs the effectiveness of science-driven policy and governance. In total, this weakens the scientific authority in advising global or regional policy, as well as reducing the potential for science-driven policymaking.

“If well designed, a global scientific mechanism on marine litter and microplastics provides the best opportunity to overcome the existing weaknesses. It would help to strengthen the science and knowledge base in this area and to improve the scientific policy advice on this issue by increasing the authoritativeness of knowledge assessments.”

In order to strengthen the science-policy interface in global environmental governance, the report from the Nordics suggest five key functions to enable a global mechanism on marine litter and microplastics:

  1. Life cycle approaches are promoted to marine litter and microplastics in all activities
  2. Regional heterogeneity of the problem is considered 
  3. Knowledge assessments globally and regionally are undertaken with coherent and consistent approaches 
  4. Scientists, policymakers and other stakeholders are involved in mutual, two-way exchanges 
  5. Scientific knowledge, data and information is easily accessible by a clearing-house mechanism* 

The authors argue that the mandate of such functions must be designed to enable the global scientific mechanism to generate outputs in a comprehensive and coherent way. This would include periodic knowledge assessments covering all stages in the life cycle of plastic, that could also measure the individual stages in the life cycle to understand effectiveness of policy interventions. Harmonization and standardization of methodologies and assessment methods would then be required to enable comparable data. 

In order for a potential global scientific mechanism to be functional the authors list four key design elements: 

Credibility – Transparency, openness to critique and scientific independence should be incorporated in the design through a threshold for relevant expertise, independent peer reviews, clear separation of scientific and political processes, fair and open access to data, and inclusiveness in both cross-sectoral and cross-scientific senses in order to successfully include all relevant stakeholders.

Legitimacy – Inclusiveness of stakeholders with scientific, indigenous and local knowledge to ensure geographical and disciplinary representativeness, gender balance as well as participation of science and non-science actors in the peer review, participation of stakeholders, production of outputs and in decision-making processes. 

Salience – For outputs to be relevant over time, their design needs to allow for broad participation in the production of outputs, as well as tailored to the needs of target audiences through good communication and outreach strategies.

Agility – The design will enable an agile mechanism through a built-in review mechanism and the allowance for flexibility in the scientific work to adapt to changing circumstances. 

On several occasions, the authors mention that one of the mechanisms holding many of these design elements is IPBES (the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services). However, the authors note that IPBES also has the challenge of balancing the trade-off between credibility, legitimacy and salience that is inherently built into any science-policy interface. The authors argue that the design should tailor for a balance between interdependence and responsiveness, by separating scientific processes and outputs from political processes and outputs. The suggestion is to rather provide informal avenues for scientists to influence the mechanism agenda and work programme.  

In the context of marine litter and microplastics, the approach to the problem needs to be system based due to the diversity in sciences and disciplines, differences in regional, local and indigenous representation and knowledge. All working and decision-making processes must be multi-disciplinary, and the mechanisms review process open, as well as agile. 

The authors conclude that an intergovernmental panel, established through a separate and independent international agreement, with its own governing body will be most efficient if the aim is to establish a continuous and stable mechanism with secure funding. If costs are the decisive factor, a multilateral agreement would be most efficient. Here the governing body of the agreement decides on the program of work, budget and rules of procedure, and the agreement’s secretariat provides its services. If time is the decisive factor, then a scientific mechanism under an existing or new international organization would be most efficient solution. The governing body of the international organization would be decisive for the program of work, budget and rules of procedures, and the organization’s secretariat would provide its work. In the current international landscape, and with the pressure on ecosystems under the burden of marine litter, the latter solution might be the best as it limits additional costs and burdens, and ultimately makes sure that a mechanism is established at all. 

If the aim is to make sure that a mechanism is established at all and all other aims or concerns are subordinated to this aim, the most promising option is certainly to embed the mechanism into an IGO as an ad hoc process. This option requires the least changes to the existing institutional architecture. 

Full publication available here.