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Students compete in the 2014 National Ocean Sciences Bowl finals in Seattle, Washington.

Students compete in the 2014 National Ocean Sciences Bowl finals in Seattle, Washington.

Katherine Pietrucha, Consortium for Ocean Leadership

For $1 million: Will an ocean science quiz program survive tough times?

Ocean scientists are working to keep afloat a 16-year-old U.S. competition aimed at encouraging young people to appreciate marine research and join their field. Since 1998, the National Ocean Sciences Bowl (NOSB) has been giving high school students a chance to test their knowledge of all things marine. But federal budget cuts are putting a squeeze on the effort, forcing organizers to cancel some bowls and scramble to find alternative support for others.

“We’re facing some serious funding challenges,” says Kristen Yarincik of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership in Washington, D.C., which created and oversees NOSB, which is scheduled to begin its next season in February. “There [have] been a lot of cuts to our key funding agencies.”

In particular, the automatic 2013 budget cuts known as the sequester slashed education funding at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NOSB’s main financial supporter. “In years past we were able to fund it up to $1 million a year,” says Christos Michalopoulos, NOAA’s deputy director of K–12 and informal education. But in 2013, the total dropped to zero, and in 2014 it rebounded to about $125,000. In 2015, “our hope is that we can give a little bit more.” (Congress will resume work on the budget for fiscal year 2015, which began on 1 October, after the November elections.)

The cuts forced NOSB, which covers 34 states and Washington D.C., to reduce funding for its regional bowls, whose winners go on to a national competition. Some, like the Great Lakes Bowl in Michigan, have received money from other programs, such as the state-federal Sea Grant program, and lowered costs by replacing paid staff with volunteers. Others have simply canceled competitions. This year, for instance, the Aloha Bowl in Hawaii could not afford to bring contestants to the island of Oahu for the contest, according to Yarincik, so organizers decided to host the bowl every other year in the future.

Overall, “we expect to have 25 bowls in 2015,” Yarincik says. But she doubts federal funding will fully rebound anytime soon, so “the risk of regions dropping out is going to be there for the next few years.”

Some NOSB fans worry that its financial problems will make it harder to recruit students into the marine sciences or build public support for the field. They note that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a 16% rise in demand for geoscientists, including ocean scientists, between 2012 and 2022, faster than the national average for all occupations. A 2007 survey of NOSB participants found that although only 17% pursued college majors in marine science, 68% said NOSB inspired them to “develop ocean-related hobbies or to participate in conservation related community service.”

One former contestant, Brian Kennedy, 28, says NOSB was instrumental in putting him on the path to his current job as expedition coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research. Kennedy says he was fascinated with marine biology by the age of 5, but his family lived in Athens, Georgia, and made the 5-hour trek to the coast just once or twice a year. He came across NOSB in high school and ended up competing for three years.

“The experience was a great opportunity to meet and network,” Kennedy says. “It provides the opportunity for landlocked students who are interested in ocean science to meet practicing ocean scientists. … I certainly wouldn’t have ended up in the line of work I’m doing right now if it weren’t for Leslie [Sautter, a marine scientist at the College of Charleston in South Carolina].”

Kennedy ended up studying marine science at Charleston and still volunteers with the bowl every year. “I feel I owe the organization something,” he says, “for all it provided me.”