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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

U.S. Senate calls for building three, not two, new regional research vessels

Every cloud has a silver lining. Along with the news that a Senate spending subcommittee today approved a paltry $46 million budget increase for the National Science Foundation (NSF) for fiscal year 2017 came what appears to be a bright spot for ocean science. In February, the agency had requested funds to design and construct two new regional class research vessels (RCRVs). But instead, the panel has approved funding three such vessels. The three ships, the Senate panel noted, would allow each major coastal region of the United States—the East and West coasts, and the Gulf of Mexico—to have its own dedicated vessel.

The promise of new ships has been a long-cherished hope for many ocean scientists. RCRVs are among the smaller vessels in the federal fleet, optimized for work in coastal waters, estuaries, and bays. The need for them became particularly apparent in 2010, when researchers sought to quickly reach the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico but found a dearth of available ships. Two of the three RCRVs in the fleet have since retired.

NSF has sought for years to expand its existing fleet of these vessels, which would be funded through the agency’s large facilities construction account. In 2013, Oregon State University, Corvallis, got the nod and $3 million from NSF to coordinate the design for three vessels.

Then, in 2015, the National Science Board endorsed proceeding from the design to the construction of the vessels—but advised NSF to include construction of two, rather than three, vessels in its future funding requests, following a recommendation for belt-tightening as laid out in the National Research Council’s decadal survey for ocean sciences, released in early 2015. In its 2017 budget request released earlier this year, NSF sought $106 million to begin construction of the two ships, and estimated a total project cost of $255 million spread out over 3 years. Still, the bulk of the funding had yet to materialize.

Now, the Senate panel has approved $159 million to begin construction of three RCRVs. Assuming there are few economies of scale, the total cost for completing the three ships would be about $380 million. 

Ocean scientists won’t know whether the money for the new ships will actually be available until the end of the budget process later this year. The Senate still has to complete work on its NSF spending bill, and the House of Representatives has yet to start work on its version.