03 Oct 2023

Welcome to the inaugural edition of our EuroMarine Researchers in the Spotlight series, where we engage in captivating conversations with prominent researchers within our network.

For this article, EuroMarine reached out to Jeroen Steenbeek who led the Foresight workshop titled "Modelling for Policy Advice Under a Global Change Context: Expert Workshop on Measuring and Improving the Fit of Spatial-Temporal Aquatic Ecosystem Models". We wanted to hear about its impact five years after the rollout of the workshop.

The workshop aimed to address the challenges of enhancing spatial-temporal ecosystem models within the context of global change. Held from June 3 to June 5, 2019, in Barcelona, Spain, the workshop gathered 18 experts in aquatic ecosystem modeling from around the globe.

The primary objectives were twofold: to incorporate uncertainty assessment capabilities and model fitting techniques into existing spatial-temporal ecosystem models. Participants presented case studies involving Bayesian statistics, ensemble modeling, spatial validation, and parameter sensitivity analysis.

The outcomes of the workshop were transformative. The discussions led to a 2021 position paper that outlined the state of the art in marine ecosystem modeling and proposed ways to advance the field. The recommendations from the paper have been implemented in a working prototype and influenced ongoing research. The workshop's findings have been integrated into various European research projects and discussions within the Fisheries and Marine Ecosystem Model Intercomparison Project (Fish-MIP), which informs major scientific and policy bodies like the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).


Jeroen Steenbeek is a classically trained software engineer with decades of development experience in industrial, academic and commercial settings. He is a core programmer of the Ecopath with Ecosim (EwE) food web modelling approach and manages the EwE software lifespan at Ecopath International Initiative, Barcelona Spain.

His main research interests are solving ecosystem modelling challenges by simplifying the interactions between science and technology, using state-of-the-art computing paradigms, programming languages, GIS, and serious gaming.

He is currently (2023) finishing his PhD thesis entitled “Ecosystem modelling for the Ocean Decade: facing the challenges” at the Polytechnic University of Catalunya, and he *really* hopes to be done with that soon.

EuroMarine: Could you briefly introduce the research topic that your Foresight Workshop focused on and describe its significance in the field of marine science?

In order to use complex, mechanistic Marine Ecosystem Models (MEMs) for policy, the MEM community needs facilities that to date (2019) do not exist:

  1. the ability to systematically assess uncertainty in MEMs,
  2. the ability to systematically validate MEMs against observations, and
  3. to assess that MEMs work correctly for the correct reasons.

These limitations presently hamper the uptake of MEMs in the policy arenas where MEM output is so direly needed. The 2019 foresight workshop brought experts from around the world together to discuss how MEMs could be improved to close these gaps, and thus move the field of marine ecosystem modelling forward for policy advice.

EuroMarine: How did the Foresight Workshop contribute to the evolution and advancement of your research topic? Did it help identify new directions, methodologies, or emerging issues that were previously overlooked?

Most certainly. The Foresight Workshop led to a 2021 position paper that summarized workshop findings in the context of the current knowledge, and laid out how the state of the art needs to be moved forward to move the field of Marine Ecosystem Modelling forward.

The ideas of the position paper have been implemented into a working prototype in an almost finished PhD thesis. The ensuing discussions are already affecting how modellers use their tools, and the new methodologies developed here are already being discussed in the Fisheries and Marine Ecosystem Model Intercomparison Project (Fish-MIP) project, which in turn advices the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The workshop also provided the inception for a book chapter that provides best practices and caveats to the functioning and use of Ecospace, the spatial-temporal module of the Ecopath with Ecosim food web modelling approach.

EuroMarine: What were the main outcomes or key findings that emerged from your Foresight Workshop? How did these outcomes shape your research trajectory or provide new insights into the topic?

The main outcomes of the FWS were a series of relatively simple recommendations to make the process of ecosystem modelling more thorough, combining existing scientific insights with software engineering to break decade-long stalemates.

This work has found uptake in various European research projects which is encouraging, but also had made us realize that there are new puzzles ahead of us, such as ensuring that MEMs behave correctly for the correct reasons. Here, the global MEM community is still missing an entirely new theoretical framework. Every new breakthrough seems to reveal a next set of challenges.

EuroMarine: Did your Foresight Workshop lead to any follow-up actions or collaborations? Have you applied for additional funding to further develop your research? If yes, could you describe the subsequent projects or initiatives that resulted from the workshop?

The FWS gave us the unique opportunity to bring together a much larger group of key researchers that could not have been brought together under project funding. The FWS findings have found its way into many opportunities that individual researchers are engaged in, with a few milestone publications for the global community.

Although currently the only direct subsequent project resulting from the FWS is the PhD of myself, the FWS findings are already permeating through the work of countless researchers globally. We consider this an incredible success.

EuroMarine: Have you published a peer-reviewed article, or any other form of scientific publication based on the research discussed in the Foresight Workshop? If so, could you provide some details about the publication and its impact on the field?

Yes, the FWS generated two publications to date with another in progress, as just mentioned.

EuroMarine: Have you presented your research findings to policymakers or other stakeholders in the marine science community? If yes, how did the Foresight Workshop contribute to the development of your research into actionable insights for policy or decision-making?

This is a longer-term aim. The FWS findings are being translated into actionable tools to make MEMs more suitable for policy, which will affect how policymakers and other stakeholders will be able to 'consume' MEM output.

A research group based in the USA, that participated in the FWS, has already been deploying some of the FWS ideas to define management reference points for specific commercial fish stocks. Another FWS participant landed European Research Council funding based on the ideas amalgamated in the FWS.

As for my own research, the FWS findings will be used directly in the EU H2020 project Ecoscope, where we are building modelling tools for policy, and in DITTO, a United Nations Ocean Decade program to define best practices for building digital twins of the oceans. Because any MEM uptake requires systematic assessments to make sure the MEMs behave well for the correct reasons, the potential to implement the findings of the EuroMarine FWS are endless.

EuroMarine: Looking back, how would you assess the overall impact of the Foresight Workshop on your research and career? Did it open up new opportunities, enhance your visibility, or lead to further collaborations beyond the initial workshop?

The FWS was borne out of my research interests, and the results align with where I wish to go. I am a programmer working in ecology, and implementing the FWS findings straddles both ecology and technology. I hope the work will lead to new opportunities when I finish my PhD on this very topic.

EuroMarine: What advice or suggestions would you give to future Foresight Workshop leads in terms of maximizing the benefits and outcomes of the workshop?

Ooh, that is a complicated one. I can only give my limited personal experience here. For me, the FWS was the perfect way to bring people together that have the combined scientific expertise, but that cannot be brought together otherwise with regular project funding.

I see the FWS framework as a way to complement 'traditional' scientific funding by building expert groups that have the potential to rapidly advance an entire field. Of course, the EM funding is only sufficient to start such collaborations and not to see them through.

Thankfully, in our case, FWS participants were able to continue working to expand on FWS ideas using their own funding. This may not always be the case, which poses a risk that FWS may not produce results. We were lucky, and although it took over four years, we have great results.

We are very thankful for EuroMarine for this opportunity. Future Foresight Workshop leads should have good plans for continuation, which should perhaps be included in the FWS proposal process to ensure maximum benefits and outcomes.