Future Earth Coasts

FEC Dialogue: Meet the Fellows | Dr. Leslie Mabon

FEC Dialogue: Meet the Fellows | Dr. Leslie Mabon


“It can be very hard early on in your career to handle rejection. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get any easier or less frequent as your career progresses. But what you do develop over time is the confidence to know that you can do good research and get funded, published and employed for it.”

-Dr. Leslie Mabon

Dr. Leslie Mabon

The Open University | UK

Dr Leslie Mabon is a Lecturer in Environmental Systems at the Open University in the United Kingdom. He is an interdisciplinary social scientist, who is interested in how coastal societies and communities can enhance their resilience to environmental change. Leslie is especially interested in just transitions for coastal regions that rely on carbon-intensive industries; and in nature-based approaches to climate change adaptation and resilience. As well as his native Scotland, Leslie has extensive research activities in east- and south-east Asia, especially Japan, Taiwan and Vietnam. Leslie is also a member of the Young Academy of Scotland.

  1. What motivated you to become involved with Future Earth Coasts (FEC) and join the FEC Fellows Program? As an FEC Fellow, what do you hope to achieve or contribute to the broader scientific and stakeholder community?

I strongly believe that applied research for critical issues like climate change and sustainability is most effective when it involves global cooperation, and when researchers in different countries are able to work alongside and learn from each other. For mid-career and early-career researchers, it seems that there are however fewer opportunities to build international connections with potential collaborators and also to link with international institutions and organisations who can open our work up to new audiences. I was interested in the work of Future Earth Coasts for a number of years, and therefore when I saw the opportunity became available to connect with FEC by applying to the FEC Fellows programme, I was extremely motivated to apply.

As a FEC Fellow, I hope to be able to connect with other researchers from a breadth of disciplines and methodological approaches working on coastal issues, especially for climate change adaptation and resilience. I also hope to be able to share not only my research background as a social scientist working on environmental change in coastal regions, but also my lived experience as someone living and working in a coastal and rural environment on the west of Scotland.


  1. You have been co-leading the FEC Just Transitions Working Group since its inception. Could you elaborate on what initially sparked your interest in leading efforts to explore the adaptability of coastal communities to environmental change and the concept of Just Transitions?

For several years I lived in Aberdeen in the north-east of Scotland, where I saw first-hand how people and places who relied on high-emitting industries – in this case the oil and gas industry – were at risk of being left behind as the economy and energy systems moved to newer forms of production. Around the same time, in my research across Japan, including the steel town of Muroran and the paper and petrochemicals hub of Tomakomai, I saw how proximity to the coast often created opportunities for industrial cities and regions, but also left these places and the people within them at risk as the population and economy changed. This sparked my interest in understanding how to plan for a move to a sustainable and zero-carbon society that does not leave people or places behind, and also in understanding what is specific and distinctive about a just transition for a coastal region. This in turn became a valuable focal point, which I could use to tap into the global expertise of the FEC Fellows and Acadmicians and help to feed into the Just Transitions Working Group.


  1. What motivated your involvement in scientific research? Could you share insights into your career trajectory in the scientific field, including any experience and turning points that influenced your journey?

From an early age, I enjoyed learning about geography and the environment, perhaps because I grew up in a coastal former fishing village where both the land and sea influenced the environment in which I lived. My degrees through to PhD were all in geography, with a focus on social sciences. However, I always struggled for my work to get recognition with human geography audiences, and it wasn’t readily apparent to me earlier in my career that it might be the case that my research and interests might be better suited to a different field. A real turning point in my career was when I took up my current position at the Open University in the UK. Because the Open University has a mission to make education and research open to all of society, we often work in a very interdisciplinary and applied way across both our teaching and research. I am very fortunate to be in an institution where I am supported to develop interdisciplinary research, and where what we do and how it benefits society counts for as much as where we publish our science.


  1. Have you encountered any challenging situations in your career, and if so, how did you overcome these challenges?

One of the most challenging issues I have faced, and I think this is common to many people who are doing interdisciplinary research, is that it can be hard to secure jobs, publications and funding for work that does not sit neatly within one academic discipline. As I mentioned above, in my case, what was especially challenging was that I did my PhD in a field – human geography – where I found that my ideas and writing did not sit well with the trends and norms in that field. At an early career stage, it can sometimes be hard to realise that there might be a better disciplinary (or interdisciplinary) home for your work, or it might only be when you get to late PhD or postdoc stage that you recognise that what motivates you is something very different to what you started out doing. In my case, focusing on the coast and on coastal and marine policy and governance became a way for me to bring together a number of different strands that interested me, without feeling I was having to contribute to a very specific body of theory. I realized that some of the ideas I had learned during my PhD, and the research techniques and methodologies, could be used to understand how people live with and respond to changing environments on the coast. From that starting point, I built a research programme around just and resilience coastal societies, with a particular emphasis on working with the natural sciences where possible.


  1. Your research often centers on an international perspective, particularly focusing on East Asia, including Japan and Vietnam. What motivates your focus on these regions?

My research interest in Japan stems from my own personal life. My wife is from Japan, and after I met her I started to learn Japanese. Having learned some of the language, I then became interested to think about how my research background in interdisciplinary environmental social science, coupled with my language ability in Japanese, could help me to connect with researchers working on similar topics and also enable me to research environmental issues on the Japanese coast that could be of interest to researchers and policy-makers in Scotland, where I live and work. On that basis, I formed a partnership with Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology, especially with Prof Midori Kawabe, and began a programme of collaborative research that started with fisheries following the Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear accident and has since expanded to encompass environmental issues and just transitions at different sites across Japan more widely. My ability in Japanese has improved a lot since then (although it’s still challenging to understand fishers!), but I am still motivated by the core question of what can my home country of Scotland, also a coastal nation, learn from similar experiences in Japan.


  1. You published a paper regarding the Fukushima treated water issue and emphasized the importance of researchers and institutions being responsive to the concerns of local stakeholders. Could you expand on your perspective? In addressing environmental issues like this, what scientific and social response strategies do you believe should be implemented?

One of the most common concerns we heard from fishers and those involved in coastal fishing in Fukushima Prefecture before the releases of treated water started last autumn was that those living closest to the nuclear plant were often the last to know about how the plans for releasing the water were progressing. Clearly the fishers and fisheries cooperatives of Fukushima Prefecture are concerned about the economic effects on the prices of fish, and by extension their livelihoods, if seafood from Fukushima Prefecture comes to be viewed as tainted or polluted because of the releases of treated water. However, what our research has found is that this isn’t simply a scientific issue of whether or not the treated water is ‘safe’. Rather, it is about fairness in how decisions are made, and whose knowledges and experiences are included in this decision-making process. In other words, we believe that Fukushima’s fishers and fisheries cooperatives want to feel that their concerns are being taken seriously, and that there is the opportunity to meaningfully change how the treated water releases happen based on their concerns.

Although the causes of the Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear accident are unique, major marine pollution events the world over can have significant impacts on coastal communities not just financially, but also psychologically and socially. Feelings of loss of control, or major changes to land- and seascapes that matter to you, can have deep and long-lasting impacts. For the treated water releases at Fukushima Dai’ichi and issues like it, we therefore argue it is important to give coastal dwellers and stakeholders control over the evidence base that is used to make decisions, which can mean giving them power over deciding what data needs to be collected, what evidence needs to be in place, and so on. Fukushima Dai’ichi also shows that doing nothing is sometimes not an option – if the treated water was not released into the sea, something else would have had to have been done with it – but that residents and coastal stakeholders should be able to influence whether or not a development goes ahead in the coasts and seas that matter so much to them.


  1. You share daily life, comments on current events and research outcomes on Twitter. Which topics or research outcomes that you’ve shared have garnered the most attention or discussion on Twitter? Has the interaction on Twitter provided new inspiration for your research work?

My insights into daily life on the Fukushima coast often get a lot of attention, especially when there is a big news event relating to the Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear plant. Where possible I try to provide informed comment and context about why fishers or local residents might have concerns, or what is at stake from the decisions being made. To do so, I don’t just share links to my papers, but also share images and insights from my field visits to the Fukushima coast. My aim when doing so is not necessarily to counter ‘fake news’ or disinformation, but rather to highlight to those reading that different perspectives on what constitutes an acceptable level of risk can be grounded in very legitimate concerns about what the management of marine radioactivity at Fukushima Dai’ichi means for fishers’ and coastal dwellers’ livelihoods. As well as my personal account @ljmabon, I also run an account called @FukushimaSeas which is dedicated to sharing the latest peer-reviewed publications about marine radioactivity at Fukushima Dai’ichi as well as any news from authoritative source. My aim with @FukushimaSeas is not to push any viewpoint, but rather to promote informed understanding of the science behind marine radioactivity in Fukushima’s seas by highlighting the latest research that has been published.

My interest in Tweeting about the Fukushima coast even led me to lead-author a paper, in which we analysed tweets about seafood from Minamisoma, one town in the north of Fukushima Prefecture, over several years. We found that local residents are the most positive about seafood from their waters compared to those from the rest of Japan, and that social media can help to reinforce a sense of pride in Fukushima fisheries: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ocecoaman.2022.106440


  1. What hobbies or activities do you enjoy pursuing during your leisure time? 

I am a very keen cyclist, and enjoy being out on my bike all year round as I am very lucky to live among some fantastic coastal and island road routes in west Scotland. I am also a very big fan of football, and spend my weekends travelling round Scotland – or sitting at my computer – to watch my team Raith Rovers in action.


  1. From your perspective, what specific skills and qualities do you think are essential for scientific research? What personality traits and characteristics do you consider most fitting for individuals pursuing a career in scientific research?

One of the most important characteristics is to not be afraid to fail, and not to give up when papers or funding proposals are rejected or when job applications aren’t successful. It can be very hard early on in your career to handle rejection. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get any easier or less frequent as your career progresses. But what you do develop over time is the confidence to know that you can do good research and get funded, published and employed for it; and the experience to know that there are often factors that are outside of your control which can influence how your work is received and evaluated. Over time, your confidence also grows in your own work, and you get a better sense of when you can improve your work in response to criticisms that, whilst negative, are hitting on valid points; versus when you are better placed to push back and defend your ideas and approach.


  1. As a scientist, which aspects of your career do you find most fulfilling? Could you please share your vision for your future endeavors? How do you envision FEC contributing to the realization of your goals and aspirations?

I definitely enjoy fieldwork the most! During the COVID-19 pandemic, especially with the lockdowns we had in the UK, it was very difficult for me to not be able to go out and do interviews and site visits face-to-face. As a social scientist, one of the parts of my research that I find most rewarding is doing fieldwork, and going to a place with the flexibility to be open minded and see what’s going on.

As I mentioned earlier, from now on I very much want to develop comparative international research on how different coastal regions of the world are responding to the climate and energy challenges; and also how some of the more under-studied ecosystems, like temperate forests outside of North America, are helping coastal dwellers to respond to changes in the environment. The connections across different countries, disciplines and sectors that FEC provides is extremely valuable indeed in working towards this vision.


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