Eric Douglas Published

WVU Researchers Work To Improve Access To Blue Economy


Two West Virginia University researchers are in Phase One of a study funded by the National Science Foundation. They are working to find ways to connect underserved populations to natural environments, specifically the ocean, through what is called the Blue Economy. Ross Andrew and Robert Burns spoke with Eric Douglas to explain the project.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Douglas: Give me the elevator version of what this project is about.

Andrew: I think ultimately, the goal is to bring together different disciplines to address what we see as a weakness in the blue economy. So for example, we have people that are experts in social science, like Robert, who understand visitor dynamics, studying people, as they do recreation or travel. We have people that are economists that are really focused on the dollars and cents. We have people that study race, and are really focusing their scholarship on how different races and ethnicities sort of experience natural resources. And then we have folks from the business realm that are hoping to ultimately take this research product, this process that we’re going through, and make it something that can be functional in society moving forward to sort of create that benefit.

Douglas: What is the blue economy?

Burns: I think the best definition is going to be all of those sources of benefit, really, that come from ocean and coastal resources, at least through the lens of the US. But the blue economy is anything that you can connect to those ocean and coastal resources. And it’s not necessarily just the products that are tangible, like eating seafood, or shipping things from here to Europe or here to Asia. It’s also those, those industries that exist because of the ocean.

Douglas: Why the focus on people of color and the blue economy?

Burns: For 50 years, we’ve studied Caucasian use in blue and green environments — ocean and land environments. And I’ve been a part of that for 20-some years. Every survey that we do, every time we survey people, we get about three to seven percent people of color in our database for that particular study. In this case, we’ve flipped the survey methodology where all of the people that we’re going to interview and work with are people of color, whether they’re African American, Hispanic, or Indigenous or Asian.

Douglas: Let’s walk through that process. Where does it go? What are the downstream efforts?

Andrew: Basically, we’re being funded right now to address this problem. We want to produce a product that goes out to people. And we’re trying to treat this like a business startup. At the end of phase one, we’re going to have some sort of low fidelity prototype that we can then give to people in different areas that are connected to the blue economy and these resources and say, “Use this. Try this. Does this app, does this website, does this data-structuring tool that we’ve made to be user-friendly work?”

It’s not a dusty report that everybody has to read through. It’s not a whole matrix of ones and zeros of data. But it’s something that we can use, maybe it’s almost like a game. But it basically tells that story of connection, and allows people to explore these resources a little more effectively than what they get now.

Douglas: For West Virginians historically, it may not be true as much today, but there’s always been that connection between West Virginia and Myrtle Beach. How does this apply to West Virginians who would go to Myrtle Beach?

Burns: I think the real answer is that the study that we’re conducting in the Florida Keys and in the Great Lakes is designed to be replicated and extended elsewhere. We want Myrtle Beach to be as accessible to underserved communities as the Florida Keys. We know that in this area, West Virginia is the heart of Appalachia. There are a lot of underserved populations, a lot of people who don’t have access to go to Florida Keys, but they can drive to Myrtle Beach.

Part of the process is informing people, for example, in West Virginia, of the opportunities that exist so they can develop those place attachments with those areas and make sure that they’re accessible for the income that exists in West Virginia. There are a lot of high-end opportunities in Myrtle Beach, and there are the kinds of opportunities for folks who don’t have a lot of funds. So we want to be able to provide people with more opportunities, including those from West Virginia.

If the researchers are approved for Phase Two next year, they will be eligible to receive a $5 million grant to continue their work. The grant is funded through the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.