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January 2011 Issue

Bringing Ocean Science To the
Forefront of National Policy

By Robert B. Gagosian
President and Chief Executive Officer
The Consortium for Ocean Leadership

The past year was an exceptionally active one for ocean science. From the executive order establishing a National Ocean Policy to the devastating Deepwater Horizon oil spill, ocean science has been front and center in 2010. As an organization striving to shape the future of ocean science and technology through discovery, understanding and action, the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, representing 96 of the leading public and private ocean research, education and industry groups, has in turn had an extremely busy 12 months.

The above image shows Dr. Niel Bruce of the Museum of Tropical Queensland studying specimens in a lighted aquarium on Lizard Island Reef as part of the Census of Marine Life.

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill
The BP plc (London, England) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico proved to be a stark reminder of both the importance of the marine environment to our nation and its vulnerability. Furthermore, the fluctuating and conflicting reports on the size, scope and impact of the spill highlighted the complexity of understanding the dynamic ocean environment.

Serving as a trusted broker for ocean science and policy, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy asked Ocean Leadership to be the liaison for a meeting in late May with the academic research community on the fates and effects of the oil spill. Sensing the need for further engagement of the academic community, Ocean Leadership then hosted a science symposium at Louisiana State University on June 3. More than 200 scientists from around the country attended, including key agency officials such as NOAA administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco, U.S. Geological Survey director Dr. Marcia McNutt and National Science Foundation assistant director Dr. Tim Killeen, with many more participating via a live webcast stream, which appeared on CNN. The dialogue between the government and nonfederal scientists highlighted the unique capabilities of the academic research community and identified opportunities for partnerships to address the key scientific and monitoring gaps. Ocean Leadership published a meeting summary, which included research priorities for determining the magnitude of the spill, tracking the fate and transport of the oil and evaluating the long-term ecological and human effects. This summary is available on the Ocean Leadership website.

While we worked to promote a comprehensive national science program, our member institutions were on the front lines dealing with the catastrophe, from collecting water samples to predicting the oil slick's track to assessing the potential for future environmental damage. Academic researchers performed much of the most critical work immediately, often without waiting for federal or industry support, clearly demonstrating the dedication of the gulf science community and its duty to public service. As Washington policy makers probed to ascertain the federal response and future impacts of the spill, several representatives from our member institutions also shared their science expertise and knowledge through congressional testimony.

The enormous quantities of crude oil and dispersants that fouled the ocean will have long-lasting effects on the gulf's ecosystems, economies and society. In order to understand the long-term fate and effects of this oil and the dispersants used, it is clear that a comprehensive, long-term scientific research effort is needed. This effort will take several decades, and the credibility of its conclusions is dependent on thoroughly peer-reviewed scientific processes.

Ocean Leadership has advised BP about the best practices to promote a comprehensive, peer-reviewed science initiative, as we have many years of experience, including managing the National Oceanographic Partnership Program, the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, the Census of Marine Life and the Ocean Observatories Initiative. We are also strongly advocating for the establishment of a comprehensive, peer-reviewed federal science program.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill has been a tragedy of epic proportions, and we must now take this opportunity to learn as much from it as possible—not only to understand the fates and effects of this spill, but to prevent and mitigate the impact of future spills.

National Ocean Policy
Another landmark moment for ocean science occurred when President Barack Obama signed an executive order in July establishing a national policy for the stewardship of the oceans, coasts and Great Lakes. The order also established a cabinet-level National Ocean Council and a framework for coastal and marine spatial planning. Ocean Leadership's efforts advocating that science remain at the heart of the policy were successful, as science is incorporated throughout the national priority objectives, as well as being recognized in its own right.

Objectives in 2011
In the next year, our organization's attention will be focused on the implementation of the National Ocean Policy, with an emphasis on a comprehensive, science-based approach toward the ocean and coastal management.

Proper implementation will require significant new scientific investments to improve understanding of the ocean system, its interaction with climate and the sustainable use of marine resources.

As Obama said when he entered office, it is time to 'restore science back to its rightful place.' So 2011 looks to be an interesting year. We plan on continuing to advocate for the importance of keeping the highest quality ocean science front and center in the nation's ocean policy.

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