I don’t leave my science in a journal”

July 2023 (Part 1)

The Tyler Prize recently sat down with Dr. Rashid Sumaila, our 2023 Tyler Prize winner, to discuss his academic journey from engineering to marine conservation, his collaboration with Daniel Pauly, and how he ended up speaking with King Charles and President Barack Obama.

(This interview is part one of a two-part series. You can read part two here).

(Photo Credit: Kim Bellavance)

How does it feel to have won the 2022 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement?

It is just overwhelming. A prize like this, which many have called the Nobel Prize for the Environment, and the list of people who have won it before, it’s quite an honor. This is like… an approval of the approach I have taken to economics. I call it interdisciplinary oceans and fisheries economics, and that guides me, because if you want to study the ocean, you can’t do it alone. No discipline can do it alone. We have to work together. You have to understand natural sciences, the economy, social sciences, pollution, green chemistry – even, for example, ‘how do you make plastic that doesn’t kill the ocean’?
So this is about work that is interdisciplinarity, co-creation, and partnership – I think winning the Tyler Prize is a kind of endorsement of that approach, and that makes me happy.

What got you interested in this problem of overfishing? How did you end up doing what you’re doing now?

When I went to university, I actually ended up in the engineering department. I did building technology, specializing in quantity surveying, but then something happened: a famous Nigerian economist called Adebayo Adedeji, who was then the head of the Economic Commission for Africa, was in the news talking about what the continent and governments needed to do to solve the economic social problems of the African people. And that was how I moved into economics.
I went to Norway to do my graduate studies and in Norway you cannot get away from the ocean, the coast, and fish – so I took interest specifically in ocean conservation and fisheries sustainable use.

You are sharing this prize with Daniel Pauly. How did you first meet Daniel?

I came to UBC in 1995 as a PhD student. When I came, Daniel had already been there since 1993. He was a full professor when he came. I was a finishing PhD student. We noticed each other because at the weekend we were in the huts here at UBC – they were huts from the Second World War donated to UBC. On a Saturday, there would only be one other person working and that would be Daniel!

So one day, Daniel walked into my office and said “You’re a serious person.” Then we started talking, that was the beginning. Because he’s an ecologist and I’m an economist, it really worked well – because we could compliment each other and together do things that neither of us can do separately. And that was the beginning back in 1995.

What impressed you about Daniel Pauly’s work?

Daniel is global. He does huge global stuff. And what I learned from him is this idea that you have to look at fisheries as a global system. You cannot say, “Oh, there’s no data for Africa” so you assume there’s no Africa – we know people are eating fish there. You’ve got to find a way to get the data. So this idea that in science we cannot leave any part of the world behind was actually Daniel’s thinking, that has led him to create all the big databases and do all the big analysis. And here I am, I came as a typical economist. The most I was doing was looking at two species of fish. And so that scale of work was the big attraction.

Of course, Daniel’s brilliance and contribution and analysis meant that Daniel quickly became the most cited fisheries scientist. Many places I go in the world with Daniel, everybody feels he’s representing them. So he goes to Africa, they feel like he’s one of them. He goes to the Pacific, they think he’s one of them. He has that quality that people see him and think “Ah, he’s one of us.”

How does your work and Daniel’s work connect with each other?

If you think of our work on subsidies, for example, I come with all the economic theory and Daniel comes with the biology. We see the picture from both the ecology and the economic side, and then we combine data. It’s just a nice marriage, if you like, of ecology and economics in a beautiful way that helps us to do things we each couldn’t do alone.

How did you go from being an economist to an activist? What was the journey and why did you do it?

In the olden days, people like me would get in trouble just for talking to journalists. Fortunately, things have improved a bit. We now realize you can’t just publish and leave your publication in a journal. How many people will read that? You have to translate it. You have to pass it on. I want it to reach the population, the people who can actually make use of it. After all, we are public servants who work for the people.

The key thing for me is whatever I say comes from either my own research or that of my group or colleagues. There’s always a backup for what I say. For me, that is what makes all the difference. I’m not just talking like a politician. I’m a scientist. There’s my work on the data, the analysis, and the review that I’m defending. Then I’m comfortable taking my message to the people.

Why is it important to get your science out beyond the journal?

As far as I’m concerned if my science doesn’t lead to action on the ground to improve things, then my science is meaningless. So my science is meaningful only if it leads to helping people to make decisions, in the case of oceans, that make them really sustainable and support communities and indigenous people.

You can’t believe the spaces I have been lucky enough to occupy. Years ago I was sitting in my office and our secretary came in with an envelope and said, “Rashid, this is a letter to you and I’m not going to put it in your inbox, I have to give it to you.” “Why?” I asked. “Because it comes from Buckingham Palace!”

The letter was from Prince Charles, “Come over to the palace, let’s have a chat about how to sustain our oceans.” Then I had the opportunity to talk after President Obama, in the State Department, because they had heard about our numbers and thought they might be useful. They have to get the data into policy, right? The Prince of Monaco, that’s another one. I mean, it’s just unbelievable. I call myself ‘Little Rashid’ and I get into these big spaces. Why? Because I don’t leave my science in a journal. I publish, and once I’ve done that, I get it out to the public and this is what keeps me going.

You’ve previously spoken at The World Economic Forum. What are your hopes for presenting in this kind of space?

At this forum – no decisions are made – but we share our data. These economic meetings are very important, and very influential people go there – leaders, senior politicians, and businesses. This is where powerful people go, and that’s great. The messages I want them to hear are:

  1. What we call ‘harmful subsidies’ – these fishing subsidies can catalyze overfishing.
  2. That we have to take a broad view of the value we get out of the ocean. This is not just about the marketable value of things we take out of the ocean, it’s about the whole ecosystem. For example, in our study of High Seas carbon sequestration versus fish values, we found a ratio of 10 to 1. That is, the carbon value of the fish in the high seas is 10 times the value of fish we take each year to sell and eat. If you only think about the marketable value, you lose the value of this ecosystem service – the carbon sequestration value. So I hope the economist meeting will have a broad economic view of the ocean and what it provides us.

Can you speak to your experience of diversity in STEM?

I did my Ph.D. in economics in Norway. One of my professors became interested in me and my performance. He said: “Rashid, I would love you to do your thesis with me on fisheries… I have a project on that. You will never regret doing fisheries”. He told me that at conferences and meetings, it was mostly white men, and they were embarrassed by that. Now the sector is bringing in indigenous persons, women from developing countries – it’s starting to open up.
He is right, I’ve never regretted the decision. It’s been amazing actually. All my peers wanted to do finance and banking to go to the money. And I chose fish! They thought I was crazy. But you know, these days, my peers are doctors and engineers, and they say, “Whoever thought fish would take you this far!”

Racism is still an issue. In Norway, most people were very nice to me, but once in a while, you have a crazy person shouting some nonsense to you on the street. And when that happens, I go home and if I was planning to write a paper that week, I’d write two.

How can systems change?

At this point, I get to be on panels and search committees, and so you can see there are issues – systemic and also unconscious biases. For example, I find that it’s really hard for an African scholar to just get through the search committees. There’s always something somebody can pick up. Either your cover letter is not as polished, or something. And then of course in economics – there are five top economic departments. To get to Harvard, Princeton – most of them will not be minority disadvantaged students or girls from Africa. I think we need to open up, we need to really know that good ideas don’t come only from Harvard. They can come anywhere – from anyone – because we need people’s brains and minds to deal with huge problems.

What are your thoughts on Decolonization of Conservation?

It is so important. I’ve worked with indigenous groups like the First Nations Fishers Council of British Columbia. We need to listen and to pull back non-indigenous people to allow indigenous knowledge. They’ve been doing this for centuries. You have to listen, allow them to tell you what it means, what they value, and let them lead the research.

This connects to my earlier point about getting all minds on board. You cannot shut out the indigenous knowledge that has been developed over so many years because it’s not published in the big publications. It’s important for the world. In order to solve our problems, we need all the minds we have.

How do you feel as a West African, hearing about the struggles of your fellow West Africans and others in the continent against the current climate crisis?

It really breaks my heart, because overfishing, pollution, and climate change are often things that they don’t have control over. They emit very little CO2 per capita. There are huge consequences and those of us in the rich parts of the world, we really have to do something about this. Not simply because we care (like some of us do), but because it is in our own interest to make life livable everywhere people are.

Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

Yes, I would like to share a few words from my grandfather from whom I actually attribute my love for nature. When we were young, playing soccer, jumping and hitting the ground and having fun, my grandpa would say: ‘Hey, you guys, you should walk on the ground as if it feels pain’. I later reflected on this and thought – wow, this is sophisticated environmentalism. Actually, to me, it’s even broader than environmentalism because I think anyone who can walk on earth as if it feels pain is going to be treating nature respectfully and treating other people respectfully. That really touched me deeply.

That links to the point about decolonization and indigenous knowledge and being diverse and opening up. Some feel that collaboration is a Western idea. I say it’s an African thing. It’s everybody’s thing. All of us are in this together. If we don’t take care of our environment, it’s not going to be able to take care of you.

In part two of this interview, Tyler Prize Laureate Daniel Pauly discusses the career cost of speaking up as an active citizen, his challenges as a biracial scientist, and his thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement. 

You can read part 2 of the interview here

To read more on Dr. Sumaila’s incredible work:

YouTube – Dr. Rashid Sumaila – “We really have to do something about this!”

YouTube – Dr. Rashid Sumaila – “I’m afraid of what Mandela will think of me if I lose hope”

Faculty Website: Dr. Rashid Sumaila, University of British Columbia

Fisheries Economics Research Unit

UBC, School of Public Policy and Global Affairs (SPPGA) – Get to Know UBC SPPGA Prof. Rashid Sumaila