Exploring the 'oceans crisis'
Just how .......d are the world's oceans?
I've put the dots in that sentence so you can insert the word of your choice.
According to a high-level seminar of experts in Oxford earlier this week, there's one word starting with the letter S that would fit quite well, a longer option beginning Kn - and a few more that are even stronger in meaning.
The S option, by the way, is not "secured".
Scientists are famous for staying in silos and never peering over the edge at what's going on in the world around them.
What marked this week's event - convened by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean - as something a bit different was the melange of expertise in the same room.
Fisheries experts traded studies with people studying ocean acidification; climate modellers swapped data with ecologists; legal wonks formulated phrases alongside toxicologists.
They debated, discussed, queried, swapped questions and answers. Pretty much everyone said they'd learned something new - and something a bit scary.
Warnings on the impacts of issues such as overfishing, pollution and habitat loss aren't new. With some of them, scientific findings have translated into a pressure for change, and indeed to actual change - as seen this week, for example, with the European Union's adoption of new rules on illegal fishing.
But the various threats tend to be considered in isolation.
By contrast, the idea behind this project is to look at what happens under a combination of threats, and ask what this more comprehensive picture demands in the way of policy changes.
It's fairly well-known now, for example, that the impacts of climate change on coral reefs can be delayed by keeping the reef healthy - by preventing local pollution, keeping fish stocks high and blocking invasive species.
So a policy to reduce climate impacts can mean curbing fishing or pollution, which might in turn mean changing farming practices to prevent fertiliser run-off.
In places, filter-feeding fish are apparently living in sediments containing so many particles of plastic that it makes up half of each mouthful. Other pollutants such as endocrine-disrupting ("gender-bending") chemicals gather on the plastic surfaces - which obviously can be harmful to the fish.
So a "healthy fisheries" policy might again involve regulating pollutants.
If the ways in which these various threats combine was a central theme of the seminar, another was the way in which trends appear to be speeding up.
Many researchers noted that in their field of study, the pace of decline and degradation exceeded even the worst projections made just a few decades ago.
The conclusions of the seminar will be released later this year. One of the aims is to get some serious commitments on ocean issues at the Rio+20 summit next year.
And here lies the biggest challenge for this project - especially in a world where the number of "other Cassandras", to use a phrase from the JM Kaplan Fund's Conn Nugent, appears to have grown way beyond the public's appetite for messages of doom.
Turtles are among the animals facing multiple threats - fishing nets, habitat loss, pollution...
For scientists, the route from research findings to policy change can appear simple.
They tell politicians and the general public how it is, the public gets concerned, and politicians then reform the system so as to halt the destruction - partly because it's the right thing to do, partly because the public is telling them to.
Barry Gardiner MP, a leading light in the Globe International organisation of environmentally concerned parliamentarians and recently appointed as Labour leader Ed Miliband's special envoy on climate change, gave the scientists a condensed and forceful lesson in political realities.
Of 650-odd MPs in the UK Parliament, he said, there are perhaps 50 who would have any reason to pay attention to global tales of ocean decline; and only perhaps 10 who would find a political motive for taking up such an issue in the House.
"There has to be a level of political engagement, and that engagement has to be not by scientists coming with the best analysis there is and wagging your fingers and saying 'now go and get this sorted out', because no politician listens to this," he said.
"You've got to listen to the politician and what his problems are, and them come with solutions."
This full-frontal assault on assumptions provoked some shocked scientific faces around the table; and Jelle Bijma, a biogeochemist from the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany, said it...
"...makes you feel like a moron... what keeps politicians from operating with proper minds?"
But to people used to the cut and thrust of lobbying, some who have spent 40 years working for environmental progress, it wasn't such a surprise - Josh Reichert, head of the Pew Environment Group, likening the current situation to...
"...driving towards the edge of a cliff while taking copious notes along the way.
"For years the science has gotten better, and the problem has become worse. Better science will enhance our understanding of the dilemma we face but will not resolve it - we depend on government to do that, and the challenge we face is getting government to act."
When the final report is written, its conclusions are likely to include (however worded) a warning that the oceans are in deep trouble, that decline is speeding up, and that impacts of this are already being felt.
It will probably outline many dimensions of the issue, and make a comprehensive set of recommendations for politicians - and perhaps, for the public and the corporate sector.
The major challenge, as always, will be getting the message heard and acted upon.
For all the understanding of links between various threats out there in the oceans, the most important link is still between scientific findings and political action - and it's the one where progress remains most conspicuously lacking.