An artist’s conception of a new regional class research vessel.

An artist’s conception of a new regional class research vessel.

Oregon State University

House panel would block NSF from building two new ships

A congressional spending panel has rejected a request by the National Science Foundation (NSF) for $106 million to start building two new research vessels for the nation’s academic fleet. Yesterday’s action by an appropriations subcommittee in the U.S. House of Representatives puts the panel at odds with its Senate counterpart, which last month exceeded NSF’s request and backed construction of three vessels. A key lawmaker’s explanation of the House move also reveals a misunderstanding of the nature of the academic fleet and how it operates.

The House panel, chaired by Representative John Culberson (R–TX), approved an overall budget for NSF of $7.406 billion. That figure is some $57 million below its current level and $103 million below what the Senate panel embraced. Both the Senate and House figures are below the president’s request for $7.564 billion in discretionary spending for the 2017 fiscal year that starts on 1 October. At the same time, the House bill adds $46 million to NSF’s current research account, which the Senate held steady. Legislators aren’t likely to work out their differences until after the November elections.

The ocean research community had initially requested three ships, estimated to cost a total of $380 million. But NSF pared down that request to two, in line with a report by a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine panel, before submitting its 2017 budget last fall to the White House. Culberson thinks NSF shouldn’t have asked for any at this time.

“I know there are a number of underutilized research ships around the country,” Culberson told ScienceInsider after his panel approved a $56 billion bill that would fund NSF and several other federal agencies. “So I need to see evidence from NSF that they are fully utilizing the existing fleet.” Culberson was referring to the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS), which operates a fleet of 17 ships belonging to NSF, the U.S. Navy, and several private institutions.

Keeping them at sea

NSF officials dispute his assessment. “That’s an unfortunate view, because we are not underutilized,” says Rick Murray, division director for ocean sciences at NSF in Arlington, Virginia. Although the rate varies by ship, he says, most UNOLS ships are at or near 100% usage.

Ships can’t be operated 365 days a year, he notes, because of the need for routine maintenance, transit times, and the time needed to load and unload research equipment for each cruise. The typical ship spends 270 to 300 days at sea, although that number may be exceeded under special circumstances. And UNOLS eventually meets the needs of every scientist with a research grant that requires ship time, he adds, through a complicated process of matching scientists with the right vessel. The ships are not interchangeable; for example, the Atlantis is only used by those who want to deploy Alvin, its deep-diving submarine, and the Marcus Langseth is focused on seismic research.

What Culberson may have been thinking about is how the fleet has been affected by years of tight budgets and rising costs. “Budgetary constraints across the Federal agencies, combined with escalating costs of new regulations, fuel, crew salaries and repairs, have led to a forced reduction in the utilization of ships to support ocean science projects,” a 2015 UNOLS report noted.

Those fiscal realities have forced federal officials to reduce the size of the UNOLS fleet over the past several years but with no loss of capacity. Murray calls it “right-sizing,” that is, replacing older, less capable ships with fewer vessels that can do more science and are more efficient to operate.

The new ships that NSF would build are called regional-class research vessels. They fall in the middle of a spectrum that ranges from larger ships that ply the oceans for weeks at a time and smaller ships that explore coastal waters. There is currently only one such regional-class vessel in the UNOLS fleet, operated by the University of Delaware, Newark. Oregon State University, Corvallis, has a contract with NSF to manage construction of the new ships, and would get to operate the first one. NSF would hold a competition for the right to operate the second and third ships, were they to be built.

No strings attached

The ships are part of an account that NSF uses to build large scientific facilities, like telescopes and ships. And although Culberson shrunk that account by removing the funding for the ships, he added $46 million to NSF’s $6 billion research account, which makes up the bulk of the agency’s budget. And NSF would have the freedom to spend the money across its six research directorates, unlike last year, when Culberson proposed growing the biology, computing, physical sciences, and engineering directorates at the expense of the social and geosciences.

“You’ll notice that there is no directorate-level funding in the bill,” he says. “I’m a big believer of having the peer-review process go forward, unimpeded, without political pressure or influence from either side.”

At the same time, Culberson warned NSF that it needs to do a better job of explaining to the public the value of each funded project. Some Republican legislators regularly poke fun at specific NSF grants they consider wasteful, frivolous, or politically motivated. And Culberson believes they are sometimes on target.

“Of course, we’re human,” he says when asked whether he had any evidence that some scientists let their political views influence their research. “But we all have to do our best to follow the facts and objectively present the scientific evidence we see in the historical record, both in the geology of the Earth and the universe around us.”