Ocean Science Gets Big Boost in 2011 Budget

For the last few years the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been an also-ran among federal science programs. But if NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco gets her way with Congress, the agency will join the front ranks in 2011.

The agency was excluded from the America Competitiveness Initiative (a budget doubling for the physical sciences begun by the Bush Administration) and left with crumbs in the massive 2009 stimulus package. Observers wondered how a new Administration so supportive of environmental science and climate research could ignore an agency intended to be a good steward of the air and sea. (NOAA received a 9% budget increase last year, for example, but its satellite procurement efforts got the biggest share.) The second-rate status for ocean research was all the more ironic given that the president had put a world-renowned marine ecologist in the driver's seat.

But now Lubchenco has made her move, and the agency is poised for a huge investment in science. Yesterday's proposed 14% increase, to $5.5 billion, for the agency as a whole would be the largest increase in NOAA's budget in a decade. Research efforts at the agency get a 7% increase overall, to $522 million; big winners include earth-system modeling, research on marine pathogens, and studies related to ocean acidification. Each reflects priorities that go beyond the agency's bread-and-butter work of regulating fisheries and monitoring weather. Overall, climate work at the Department of Commerce, most of which is at NOAA, would rise by 21% under the new budget.

Lubchenco told reporters early last year that fixing a polar-orbiting, four-satellite observational system to provide military and civilian weather and climate data would be one of the biggest challenges of her time. That failed effort, the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System launched 15 years ago, involved the Air Force, NOAA, and NASA. But the program fell 5 years behind schedule and grew $7.5 billion over budget. The solution involves the Pentagon and NOAA essentially taking two satellites each, with NOAA requesting $600 million to pay for its larger role.

The remarkable thing for ocean scientists is that this boost to NOAA's satellite work has not cleaned out NOAA's "wet" work. Between 2005 and 2010 the agency's budget grew by roughly a quarter, but the budget of the atmospheric and oceanic sciences rose by only 8%. "That was the gorilla in the room," says Kevin Wheeler of advocacy organization the Consortium for Ocean Leadership in Washington, D.C. "But this time ocean science did pretty well."