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Personnel at Palmer Station in Antarctica untie the research vessel Laurence M. Gould.

Personnel at Palmer Station in Antarctica untie the research vessel Laurence M. Gould.

Bob DeValentino/National Science Foundation

U.S. Ocean Scientists Search for Top 10 List

HONOLULU—Marine researchers are facing a 15 March deadline for weighing in on how the National Science Foundation (NSF) should set priorities for U.S. ocean science over the next decade.

“Now is the time to speak up—we’re looking for ideas,” said oceanographer Shirley Pomponi, the co-chair of a blue ribbon panel charged with advising NSF on the issue, here on Tuesday at the 2014 Ocean Sciences Meeting. The priority-setting effort comes as U.S. ocean scientists voice increasing concerns about the future of their field, which is struggling to sustain a robust research fleet and adapt to stagnating funding.

To address such issues, last year NSF officials asked the panel, organized by the Ocean Studies Board of the National Research Council (NRC), to develop “a compelling research strategy for increased understanding of the oceans over the decade 2015-2025.” NSF is one of the major funders of marine research; its oceans office has spent some $350 million annually over the past few years, and the agency has played a major role in building costly new ships, automated seafloor observatories, and networks of instrumented buoys and floats.

As money has gotten tighter, however, ocean researchers have sometimes disagreed about science and spending priorities. For example, some have argued for investing in robotic instruments rather than new ships.

The NRC panel hopes to help defuse such internal conflicts by developing a long-term consensus plan similar to those adopted by astronomers and physicists. Its Decadal Survey of Ocean Sciences, scheduled to be released in early 2015, is supposed to identify both high-priority research projects and the infrastructure needed to conduct them. And it will examine how NSF could work with other federal agencies, such as NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to fund research.

To fuel its discussions, the panel—co-chaired by Pomponi and former U.S. Navy oceanographer David Titley of Pennsylvania State University—is first surveying researchers, asking them to identify three top research priorities within and outside of their disciplines, as well as three ideas for needed technology or infrastructure. The panel has set up a website to collect the responses and has so far gotten about 200, but would like to see more by the mid-March deadline.

The next step, Pomponi says, will be to whittle the suggestions down to a manageable number. “We’re thinking no more than 10 priorities,” she told an audience at the meeting. And she’s hoping that a consensus will emerge: “We don’t want this to be a food fight among the different disciplines of ocean sciences.”