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January 2014 Issue

Robust Ocean Science Programs And the Facilities that Support Them

By Roxanne Nikolaus,
Policy Advisor
David Conover,
Former Director,
Division of Ocean Sciences, National Science Foundation

The National Science Foundation (NSF) employs a bottom-up approach to achieve its mission of supporting fundamental science, engineering and education. This means tracking science around the world and engaging the research community to identify and fund scientific and technological advancement in the most needed and promising areas of inquiry and discovery. Through the Division of Ocean Sciences (OCE), this approach provides information to understand complex ocean ecosystems and address issues impacting them in the context of a changing world.

Facilitating Progress
The past decade has seen scientific breakthroughs and discoveries that have fundamentally altered our basic understanding of the ocean and its relationship to human populations. Innovative technologies and facilities have supported our growing knowledge of the ocean and enabled new frontiers to be explored. Over the past year, there has been much progress in the development of new and upgraded NSF-supported oceanographic vessels, vehicles and systems.

RV Sikuliaq. The RV Sikuliaq—the newest member of the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System fleet—will be delivered to the University of Alaska Fairbanks in February 2014. Science trials will span the first half of 2014, and science operations are expected to begin in September.

Regional-Class Research Vessels. In early 2013, NSF made an award to Oregon State University for the design of the new regional-class research vessels. Anticipated to be up to a three-ship construction effort, a preliminary design review this summer will establish the project baseline, including number of vessels based on funding and projected science utilization. The current schedule anticipates sea trials on the first vessel in 2020.

Alvin Submersible. The first stage of NSF-funded upgrades to the human-occupied submersible Alvin is wrapping up this year.

With successful completion of sea trials in November 2013, Alvin is anticipating operational certification to support all currently funded projects. Six NSF-funded cruises are scheduled for 2014 in the Gulf of Mexico and along the East Pacific Rise.

Ocean Observatories Initiative. In 2013, the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI) Project deployed the first global array at Station Papa in the Gulf of Alaska. This array constitutes part of a network of instrumented moorings and gliders at important but undersampled high-latitude locations. Work also continues for the 2014 deployments of coastal moorings, gliders, AUVs and cabled array instrumentation. All data from OOI will be accessible via the Internet. OOI is expected to be fully commissioned in March 2015.

Budget Reality
The ocean community relies on continual advancements in technology and infrastructure to push the boundary of the scientific frontier. But the operational cost of new ocean infrastructure and the rising cost of existing facilities have created budget challenges. In recent years, the portion of the NSF budget devoted to ocean infrastructure has been increasing while total funds have flattened. These challenges—coupled with the impacts of sequestration—were highlighted in OCE’s fiscal year (FY) 2013 budget.

Over the past decade, the percentage of the OCE budget invested in major infrastructure has risen from a long-term average of 40 percent to 50 percent in FY 2012. It remained at 50 percent in the FY 2013 operating plan. Combined with sequestration, the result has been a scaling back of base budgets for OCE core science programs (Biological, Physical and Chemical Oceanography, and Marine Geology and Geophysics). FY 2013 was the second consecutive year that OCE core science programs saw substantial reductions. Even if future overall budgets remain at current levels, this declining trend in core science budgets will continue unless we manage the rising cost of existing and new infrastructure.

Decadal Survey of Ocean Sciences
The goal for NSF and OCE is to implement a balanced funding approach that continues needed investments in facilities, while sustaining robust programs in science and education. In doing so, NSF would benefit from guidance from the ocean community on research and facilities priorities—within the limits of existing resources—for the coming decade. To achieve this community-wide insight, NSF is supporting a decadal survey of ocean sciences. This decadal survey is intended to be a first step toward a regularly recurring, community approach to setting NSF-funded ocean research priorities grounded in budget reality.

The study will encompass all areas of NSF-funded research and infrastructure related to the ocean, its interaction with human populations and its role in Earth system dynamics. As detailed in the statement of task, available at http://bit.ly/1e8LcEX, the resulting report will include: review of the current state of knowledge that highlights findings and technologies that have advanced basic understanding of the oceans, driven new discoveries and paradigms, or established new societal imperatives; high-level scientific questions that will be central to the ocean sciences over the coming decade and could transform scientific knowledge of the ocean; analysis of research infrastructure needed to address priority research topics or questions; analysis of the current portfolio of investments in NSF ocean science programs, with recommendations for changes to align resources as necessary to achieve priorities; and identification of opportunities for NSF to complement the capabilities, expertise and strategic plans of other federal agencies.

Within the context of current funding levels, the final report—expected in spring 2015—will recommend a strategy to “advance knowledge in the most critical and/or opportune areas of investigation while also continuing to support core disciplinary science and infrastructure.” It will address trade-offs, identify potential cost savings, assess the impact of new activities and modifications to programs, and identify opportunities for collaboration among federal agencies.

Broad community input is critical to the value and utility of the final report. The study committee’s work plan specifies continuing and regular community input and engagement. We encourage you to visit the study website for future meeting dates and opportunities to be involved.

With the budget challenges OCE faces in the coming years, it is more important than ever to have a mechanism like the decadal survey to gather input from across the ocean community on the long-range priorities for ocean sciences.

David Conover is now the interim vice president for research at Stony Brook University.

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