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New report calls for cutting spending on infrastructure for the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI) by 20% to free up funding for research. Above, researchers prepare to test a part of the OOI network.

New report calls for cutting spending on infrastructure for the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI) by 20% to free up funding for research. Above, researchers prepare to test a part of the OOI network.

Craig Risien, Oregon State University/OOI

Cut hardware to save ocean science, says National Academies panel

A bleak U.S. federal budget outlook requires aggressive moves to revitalize ocean research, a distinguished panel of the National Research Council (NRC) has concluded. Their report, released today, calls for cutting spending on major ocean infrastructure, such as new ships and fixed seafloor observatories.  If implemented, the report’s recommendations could increase the share of funding available for experiments at sea, which has been on the decline.

“Like a ship maneuvering through a narrow channel, the field of ocean science requires careful course adjustments to be well-positioned for the next decade,” concludes the report, titled Sea Change: 2015-2025 Decadal Survey of Ocean Sciences.

The National Science Foundation (NSF), one of the major funders of oceanographic research, requested the report 2 years ago. It asked NRC to determine major research priorities for the next 10 years and suggest how spending could be rebalanced to fit those priorities. Although such decadal surveys have long been used by physicists and astronomers to develop unified priorities, today’s report marks the first time the oceanography community has attempted to grapple with those issues in such detail.

Academic ocean science is more exciting and relevant than ever, the report says, but the fiscal outlook for the field is bleak. To figure out how to cope with that reality, the panel—led by Shirley Pomponi of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce, Florida, and retired Adm. David Titley of Pennsylvania State University, University Park—solicited hundreds of comments from the marine science community and held several town halls. They boiled down the input into eight priorities for ocean science, including key questions regarding future sea level change, ocean ecosystems and biodiversity, geohazards, and the subsea floor environment. 

Currently, the panel notes, NSF’s ocean science division is spending 57% of its roughly $350 million annual budget on infrastructure. The graph below illustrates past spending by the division, as well as future projections (blue indicates spending on research, and red on infrastructure; green is the total).

National Research Council

Because NSF ocean funding is “unlikely to grow significantly over the next decade,” the report says, “the only way to recover funding for core science … is to reduce the amount of money spent on infrastructure. Such reductions are not easy and will cause disruptions for parts of the ocean science community.”

Specifically, the panel recommends that NSF should reduce infrastructure spending from 57% of its oceans budget to no more than 50% of the total. One path to that goal, it notes, would be to reduce spending by 20% on the NSF’s Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI), a $386 million network of cabled sensors, moorings, seafloor installations, and autonomous vehicles expected to be operational in March. Other funds could be freed for research by a 10% cut to ocean drilling programs, which extract cores from the sea floor, and a 5% cut to the academic research fleet.

OOI’s six main installations—three in the Atlantic and two in the Pacific—are “important” to marine science, concludes the report, which defines “important” as “useful but not essential.”

Ocean drilling, in contrast, was deemed “critical”—a higher ranking—as was sustaining the research fleet. But NSF might reconsider plans to acquire three new “regional” class vessels, it concluded, noting the vessels may be too small and limited in seafaring range for large interdisciplinary studies. NSF should build no more than two new ships, the report suggests.

Supporters of OOI are expected to defend their program. But several researchers reached by ScienceInsider said they are supportive of the difficult choices the panel made. “It’s absolutely clear that the costs of facilities growth in the ocean sciences have become unsustainable and are negatively impacting our ability to understand the ocean,” says Ken Johnson of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California. “A rebalancing of funding is essential. What to do is a difficult choice and the committee has made some very reasoned recommendations.” 

“When the OOI was conceived, autonomous vehicles were far less capable than they are now,” says oceanographer Pete Jumars of the University of Maine in Walpole. So bolting expensive equipment in specific places makes less sense now, he says, especially “at a time when oceanographic processes are undergoing tremendous, rapid, climatic spatial shifts.”

Panel members said writing the report was challenging. Committee member James McCarthy, an oceanographer at Harvard University, called divvying up the shrinking pie an “unhappy task. … Some people said: ‘Why not just argue for more money?,’” McCarthy told ScienceInsider. “We were told that wasn’t an option. This is a world of constrained resources. We didn’t come to these conclusions easily.”

Now that the report is out, funding agencies and Congress—which has the final say on spending—will have to consider its recommendations. A first hint at its impact could come as Congress begins consideration of the budget proposal that the White House will present on 2 February.