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October 2013 Issue

Industry Partnerships Strengthen Scientific Research
Dr. Rita Colwell

There has been and continues to be an unprecedented investment in research as a result of the Deepwater Horizon event. This new funding comes at a time of uncertainty in government fiscal support, reinforcing the need for leveraging opportunities and formulating partnerships with the private sector to create successful oceanographic research projects. Not only is the current federal budget uncertain, but the total federal research and development funding has dropped from roughly 12 percent of the total federal budget in 1966 to less than 4 percent in 2013, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) is just one example of how research is being successfully conducted with multiple sectors, namely academia and industry.

The GoMRI is a 10-year, $500 million independent research program funded by BP plc (London, England) to investigate the impacts of oil, dispersed oil and dispersants on the ecosystems of the Gulf of Mexico and affected coastal states. The broad context of the program is to improve the research communityís and general publicís fundamental understanding of the dynamics, environmental stresses and public health implications of such events. The ultimate goal of GoMRI is to improve societyís ability to understand, respond to, and mitigate the impacts of petroleum pollution and related stressors on marine and coastal ecosystems, with an emphasis on conditions found in the Gulf of Mexico.

The GoMRI funding model is designed to emphasize collaborative research and promote partnership building. In summer 2011, eight consortia, each consisting of four or more collaborating institutions, were funded by GoMRI. Many of these research consortia, as well as the individual researchers funded in 2012, formed partnerships with industry members. The next Request for Proposals in the GoMRI funding cycle is anticipated to be released in late 2013, and will again seek successful, collaborative projects that best address the themes of the GoMRI program.

One example of a successful partnership within GoMRI is the partnership between the CARTHE Research Consortium, led by the University of Miami, and Globalstar, a mobile satellite communications company, in completion of the Grand Lagrangian Deployment (GLAD) experiment. GLAD began with the deployment of 300 custom-built drifters near the Deepwater Horizon site to begin efforts to fully understand the surface ocean currents that transport pollutants. This was the largest-scale experiment of its kind in the Gulf. Each drifter was equipped with a SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger, which transmitted the coordinates of its location every five minutes. The collaboration between CARTHE and Globalstar allowed for the tracking information to be improved from every 10 minutes to every five minutes. Usually used for emergency services and recreational tracking, the SPOT devices have now provided more than 5 million data points to improve ocean forecast models, thereby creating a new business niche for Globalstar.

Another example of successful industry engagement with GoMRI researchers is through the development of the Deep-C Research Consortiumís SailBuoy. An unmanned, preprogrammed, wind-propelled and self-powered vessel similar in shape and size to a surfboard, SailBuoy was developed by CMR Instrumentation, a research and development company based in Bergen, Norway. The SailBuoy, which is equipped with sensors that measure salinity, temperature and dissolved oxygen, can be deployed to follow a preplotted course and transmit its location and data in real time. The mission of the Deep-Cís SailBuoy is to gather information about the northeastern Gulf of Mexico, so that researchers can better understand how particles and dissolved substances (i.e., oil) are transported from the deep Gulf to the shelf waters of the northeastern region, across the Continental Shelf and DeSoto Canyon and into the northern Gulf of Mexico. The SailBuoy project has been a close collaboration between researchers at Florida State University and the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, proving that industry, international and academic partners can succeed together in creating and operating a new marine device for scientific observations.

Additionally, a unique partnership has taken place between the Consortium for the Molecular Engineering of Dispersant Systems (C-MEDS) and their 13-member advisory committee. The committee comprises distinguished scientists from industry working with members from federal and academic laboratories to study dispersant properties and develop and test new, effective, less toxic dispersants. Engaging industry in an advisory role strengthens the application potential of the research by advising on the relevance of the research to oil spill mitigation and providing a direct link for commercialization of research developments in improved dispersants.

In the wake of Deepwater Horizon, the scale of scientific research being conducted requires high-level, collaborative research that must draw from and integrate a variety of disciplines and expertise, including from industry. In the last 50 years, industry-funded research and development has increased six times, while federal expenditures have not even doubled. The industry sector is increasingly able to fund scientific research and exploration. It is now up to researchers to take advantage of this nontraditional source of funding. As shown through these examples of fruitful partnerships, the potential for successful collaborative work with industry is significant, particularly in the area of technological innovation for solving research problems. The oceanographic community has much to gain from such partnerships.

Dr. Rita Colwell is the Research Board Chair of the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI). The GoMRI Research Board is an independent and academic board of 20 science, public health and research administrator experts. Colwell is also a distinguished university professor at University of Maryland at College Park and Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.

2014:  JAN | FEB | MARCH

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