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June 2015 Issue

Balancing Ocean Science Research Priorities With Infrastructure Costs
Dr. Shirley Pomponi
The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Ocean Sciences (OCE) is the principal funder of basic ocean science research in the United States. The ocean sciences rely on infrastructure to provide access to the ocean and to enable essential ocean observations. While operating and maintaining infrastructure is a necessary cost of oceanography, it must be balanced against the cost of supporting scientific research. Over the past decade, the costs of operation and maintenance of multi-user facilities supported by OCE have escalated at the expense of the science programs they support. Scientific infrastructure is disproportionately consuming funds, leaving insufficient funding for core research activities.

The challenge is how to achieve and maintain an appropriate balance. In 2013, NSF OCE asked the National Research Council’s Ocean Studies Board to undertake a decadal survey of ocean sciences. A committee of 20 volunteer experts was tasked to provide guidance on research and infrastructure priorities for the coming decade and recommend solutions for a balanced portfolio given current funding. The committee relied strongly on input from the ocean sciences community, including town halls at major scientific conferences and presentations and discussions from individual scientists.

The National Research Council report, “Sea Change: 2015-2025 Decadal Survey of Ocean Sciences” (DSOS), released in January, reviews key achievements in ocean science over the past decade, identifies eight research priorities for the next decade, and makes specific recommendations for the most effective portfolio of investments to support research priorities, core science, and infrastructure. The report assumes a flat budget, but includes decision rules on adjustments to the program based on future budget increases or decreases.

How did the budget get out of balance? OCE has a number of major infrastructure projects—the academic research fleet, the National Deep Submergence Facility (NDSF), the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP), and the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI)—that have substantial and rising annual operations and maintenance (O&M) costs. In 2000, 38 percent of the OCE budget supported infrastructure. By 2014, this had risen to 54 percent of the budget, squeezing the core research programs and strangling programs devoted to advancing technology development.

In addition, despite promises of OCE budget doubling in the early 2000s, the inflation-adjusted budget has actually declined by 15 percent over the past decade. It has hit some areas worse than others. For example, OCE funding for innovative technology dropped by almost 70 percent between 2009 and 2014. This is of particular concern because the historic leader in ocean technology development, the Office of Naval Research, has become more restricted in its funding in this area.

With a flat budget, the only way to increase funding for science is to decrease funding for infrastructure. Our committee chose to delve more deeply into the problem and provide bold recommendations. In its next budget, NSF needs to make an immediate 10 percent reduction in O&M of major infrastructure (OOI, IODP, and the academic research fleet), followed by an additional 10 to 20 percent decrease over the following five years. This would provide an immediate cost savings of about $20 million, followed by an additional $20 million to $40 million in the following five years. These savings should strengthen the core science programs, finance robust technology development, and fund substantive partnerships to address the decadal science priorities. Investments that advance innovative ocean technology are also likely to provide additional cost savings in the long term.

To determine how to make reductions, the committee first examined each of the major infrastructure facilities and evaluated their utility to support each of the eight decadal science priorities. Then, the committee came up with three scenarios: terminate IODP or OOI; apply a 10 percent across-the-board cut to OOI, IODP, and the academic fleet; and apply a 10 percent “weighted cut” based on the alignment of infrastructure to the science priorities and broader OCE core science portfolio. We decided against suggesting the first scenario—IODP has recently restructured to cut costs and has strong support from a multinational user community, and OOI has only just begun operations. Applying an equal cut to all infrastructure does not take into account the differences in alignment between future science needs and the existing portfolio, so the committee opted to recommend weighted cuts.

We recommend an immediate 20 percent budget reduction for OOI, 10 percent for IODP, and 5 percent for the academic fleet, and provided OCE with some options for how these cost reductions could be made. For example, two global moorings could be eliminated from OOI to save O&M costs, or an international partner could support them. Additional reductions could be made in OOI administrative costs. IODP could raise revenue from international partners, increase external funding for operations, or reduce the number of expeditions. The academic fleet could consolidate operations or lay up some of its ships.

The bottom line is that OCE must bring its infrastructure investments back in line with core science programs. This strategy will hurt in the short term—and it will affect some parts of our community more than others. While it’s not the only path forward, it is a reasonable one—based on input from an ocean science community that is committed to ensuring a robust ocean science enterprise.

Dr. Shirley Pomponi is a professor and executive director of the Cooperative Institute for Ocean Exploration, Research, and Technology at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute-Florida Atlantic University, and a professor of marine biotechnology at Wageningen University, Netherlands. She co-chaired the National Academy Committee on Guidance for NSF on National Ocean Science Research Priorities.

2015:  JAN | FEB | MARCH | APRIL | MAY

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