Scientific imaginaries and science diplomacy: The case of ocean exploitation

Sam Robinson*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


As technologies of ocean exploitation emerged during the late 1960s, science policy and diplomacy were formed in response to anticipated capabilities that did not match the realities of extracting deep-sea minerals and of resource exploitation in the deep ocean at the time. Promoters of ocean exploitation in the late 1960s envisaged wonders such as rare mineral extraction and the stationing of divers in underwater habitats from which they would operate seabed machinery not connected to the turbulent surface waters. Their promises coincided with others' fears that nuclear weaponry would be placed on the seabed. Those who lacked the technological capability to extract minerals from the seabed also had concerns that other nations would exploit their resources. Scientific imaginaries caused uncertainty in the international community—especially in the “Global South.” The UN called the “Law of the Sea” conferences to mediate emerging geopolitical tensions caused by these imaginaries of exploitation of ocean resources. These conferences became a site where lawmakers projected futures rather than merely responding to past or present dilemmas. Diplomats' negotiations, with their basis in anticipation of the future uses of science and technology, reveal the role of scientific imaginaries within complex negotiations. Here, we see the impact of the distinction (or blurring) of the real and the imagined on the balance of relations between Global North and South increasing global imbalances of resources and power. This article's analysis of such scientific diplomacy provides a valuable example of the power of scientific imaginaries to have a global impact.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)150-170
Number of pages21
Issue number1
Early online date13 Sept 2020
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2021

Bibliographical note

© 2020 The Authors. Centaurus published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Funding Information:
I am grateful for the helpful comments of two anonymous peer reviewers, Koen Vermeir, Roberto Lalli, Matthew Adamson, Amy Chambers, and Lyle Skains for their assistance in drastically improving the readability of the article, as well as to the various conference audiences who have sat through, and provide helpful feedback on, earlier versions of this work. This research was funded by the AHRC project “Unsettling Science Stories” (2016–2019) and the ERC H2020 project “InsSciDe: Inventing a Shared Science Diplomacy for Europe” (grant agreement no. 770523) 2018–2021.


  • Law of the Sea
  • ocean science
  • oceanography
  • resource security
  • science diplomacy
  • scientific imaginaries

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