No Love for NURP

Going down? NURP's submersible fleet, including the University of Mississippi's Eagle Ray, is facing an uncertain future.

Greg McFall, NOAA

A troubled undersea research program nestled within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has hit yet another snag. Earlier this year, the Obama Administration proposed eliminating the 32-year-old National Undersea Research Program (NURP), which currently has a budget of about $4 million. Now, despite pleas from deep-sea researchers to save NURP, a spending panel in the U.S. Senate has announced it supports ending the program. In a report that accompanies an appropriations bill approved earlier this week, a Senate appropriations subcommittee responsible for NOAA proposes folding NURP into the agency's Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (OER), and "purging or maintaining" NURP's current fleet of submersibles and underwater robots.

It's unclear how much of NURP would remain after merging with OER. The budget report states that "NOAA shall use $4,000,000 from within funds provided to consolidate existing partnerships in the Gulf of Mexico and the central Pacific regions." That language provides a ray of hope for two NURP centers headquartered at the University of Hawaii and the University of Mississippi (there are two other regional centers based in Alaska and Florida).

It's obvious the Senate panel wants to keep parts of NURP, says John Wiltshire, director of the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory (HURL) at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu. But the report goes on to focus on supporting autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV)—robots that operate independently of a support ship—and that's not encouraging for HURL, Wiltshire adds. That's because his center runs two of the three manned research submersibles based in the United States, as well as a new remotely operated vehicle. It does bode well for the University of Mississippi, which runs NURP's AUV, the Eagle Ray, Wiltshire adds.

NURP is no stranger to reorganization or budget cuts. It has been a part of OER since 2008, and in recent years has limped along on drastically reduced funding—going from a high of $18 million nearly a decade ago to its current $4 million budget. When the president's 2013 budget request sought to ax NURP entirely, deep-sea researchers started pleading their case before lawmakers. Wiltshire says he has spoken to the staff of Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, about saving some part of NURP, and it looks like those efforts have born some fruit.

This item has been corrected on 23 April. A spending panel in the U.S. Senate, not the House of Representatives, has announced it supports ending the program.