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Government Shutdown, Sequestration and Innovation

Aileen Torres-Bennett,
Managing Editor, Sea Technology

For Sea Technology’s annual Review and Forecast issue, we ask government officials for their thoughts on what’s been happening in the oceans in the last year and what they expect for the upcoming year. You’ll find in these pages several mentions of the government shutdown that occurred in October as a result of Congress choosing not to pass legislation that would continue to fund the government. Congress eventually relented, and the 2014 Continuing Appropriations Act was passed to end the government shutdown.

That, however, is not the end of the story. The debt limit, which was—and remains—a major point of contention in Congress, was suspended until February. What will happen in February is up in the air.

So, why should we in the ocean industry care? Beyond funding the basic day-to-day of government machinery, appropriations in the federal budget have a definite trickle-down effect on industry. Many marine companies survive on contracts from the federal government, for example, from the Navy and NOAA. Government funding is one of the pillars of financial support holding up the ocean industry. If Washington has a hard time finding the motivation to fund its own existence, then this does not bode well for those who look to Washington to buy ocean technologies for defense and research.

Further back than the government shutdown, in 2011, legislation was passed that required that if Congress could not agree on a plan to cut the U.S. deficit by $4 trillion, then $1 trillion in automatic, across-the-board cuts would begin in 2013. No agreement was made on the Hill, so sequestration began last March, resulting in what some are calling arbitrary, harmful cuts.

According to the U.S. Navy’s RAdm. John Kirby, if sequestration continues into the next fiscal year, the Navy’s budget will get cut by 10 percent below the service’s fiscal year 2014 budget submission.

“We’ll be forced to award contracts later than planned,” he wrote on a Navy blog post. “And we’ll no doubt miss out on multi-year procurement savings. That means the ships and planes we do buy are going to cost us more and come off the production lines and shipyards a little slower. And that means a smaller fleet … [which] means fewer jobs and lost revenue for small businesses and an unstable industrial base.”

If the funds for the Navy’s big-ticket items are constricting, then the budget for specialist items such as ROVS and AUVs for defense will undoubtedly feel the pinch.

With restriction being the name of the game in the federal budget, that also leaves less money for financing technological innovation. The U.S. Department of Energy is giving substantial support to marine renewable energy projects, helping to fund research and development of technologies, which will bring them closer to commercialization, as well as foster the growth of a domestic industry for sustainable energy originating from the ocean. How will sequestration affect this emerging industry? It remains to be seen. Luckily, the Department of Energy reports on progress thus far in our January issue.

Perhaps now is a time when nonprofits can play more of a role in supporting the evolution of the marine industry. For instance, Dr. Paul Bunje wrote in Sea Technology’s October 2013 issue about the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE, which offers $2 million in a global competition “for the development of accurate, robust and affordable pH sensors to profoundly improve our understanding of ocean acidification,” he wrote. “The prize is designed to spur innovators to create breakthrough pH sensors that will enable scientists to measure and respond to ocean acidification, while stimulating investment in research and development worth far more than the prize itself.”

We may be in a time of monetary restriction, but that does not mean an end to progress. Trying to improve what’s on the market and expand our knowledge of the oceans should be an ongoing endeavor.

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Sea Technology is read worldwide in more than 110 countries by management, engineers, scientists and technical personnel working in industry, government and educational research institutions. Readers are involved with oceanographic research, fisheries management, offshore oil and gas exploration and production, undersea defense including antisubmarine warfare, ocean mining and commercial diving.