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January 2017 Issue

Making Good on Commitments:
An Innovative Ocean Research Portfolio

By Roxanne Nikolaus,
Policy Advisor

Richard W. Murray,
Director, Division of Ocean Sciences
U.S. National Science Foundation

The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) supports the basic research, scientific facilities and science and engineering workforce the nation needs to acquire knowledge and transform the future. Through this support, NSF provides a driver for the U.S. economy, enhances national security and sustains the nation’s position as a global leader.

NSF achieves its mission by engaging with the research community to track advancements, identify the frontiers of science and engineering, and determine promising areas of opportunity. The foundation also relies on input from the research community to focus its efforts toward the most beneficial direction to promote the nation’s health, prosperity and welfare.

This “bottom-up” philosophy and strong relationship with the research and technical community served NSF well in developing a strategic approach to address rising operational costs for ocean infrastructure while sustaining robust ocean science and technology programs. In January 2015, the National Research Council/National Academy of Sciences released the NSF-commissioned “Sea Change: 2015-2025 Decadal Survey of Ocean Sciences”, or “Sea Change”. This report provided NSF with ocean research priorities grounded in budget reality (Sea Technology, June 2015).

Update on Response to ‘Sea Change’
For nearly the past two years, NSF has been implementing “Sea Change” recommendations, resulting in the desired portfolio rebalancing. Working with partners within NSF and other federal agencies, NSF’s Division of Ocean Sciences (OCE) has managed it activities and programs to decrease spending on infrastructure and increase spending on core science and technology programs. Efforts to date are on track to result in a structural realignment in the direction of restoration of resources to the core science, technology and educational programs.

Ocean Observatories Initiative
The Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI) transitioned into operations in 2016. OOI includes a network of cabled, moored and autonomous instrument arrays with more than 800 individual sensors distributed across four global arrays, two coastal arrays and a cabled array, along with cyberinfrastructure that receives, processes and broadly distributes data. All OOI data are freely available (http://oceanobservatories.org), often in real time, allowing better understanding of environmental changes. NSF intends to support U.S. scientists individually to facilitate enhancements to and analysis of the OOI data via submission of OOI-related scientific proposals to OCE’s basic science and technology programs.

OCE continues to support the recommendation from “Sea Change” of a 20 percent reduction in funding for OOI’s annual management and operation. A Dear Colleague Letter released in 2016 (http://bit.ly/2fypAwy) solicited input on the planned recompetition of the OOI Collaborative Agreement (CA) through an open, merit-based, external peer-review process. The existing CA for construction and initial operation extends through April 2017. OCE is also in the process of developing a plan for long-term open community involvement in OOI governance.

International Ocean Discovery Program
The International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP, www.iodp.org) is now in its third year. The JOIDES Resolution continues as the U.S. platform for IODP and operates under a CA with Texas A&M University as the JOIDES Resolution science operator (JRSO). The JOIDES Resolution is financially independent of other IODP platforms and is overseen by a scientist-led facility board (JRFB) with membership that includes scientists, funding agencies and the JRSO.

“Sea Change” called for a 10 percent reduction in the U.S. contribution to the IODP. From cost savings largely due to a simplified and consolidated facility management structure, but also from a streamlined and more efficient scheduling of JOIDES Resolution operations and lowered fuel costs, the fiscal year (FY) 2017 JOIDES Resolution schedule has simultaneously increased its operational time and reduced its overall costs. Cost savings have resulted in an approximately 30 percent increase in operations, with a 12 percent decrease in the overall budget. Recently, the JOIDES Resolution Science Operator Site Visit Panel concluded that the facility is being managed exceptionally well by the JRSO, and that it is also being overseen effectively by the JOIDES Resolution Facility Board and NSF to meet the IODP Science Plan.

Regional-Class Research Vessels
NSF planning for construction of two Regional-class research vessels (RCRVs) was part of President Barack Obama’s FY 2017 budget request. The final number of vessels has yet to be determined. Funding for design and preparation of the construction phase was provided in FY 2016, and those activities continue. The RCRVs would be a significant step toward realizing a U.S. Academic Research Fleet composed of fewer but more capable vessels and are NSF’s contribution to “right-sizing and modernizing” the fleet. A full description of the RCRV design and acquisition process is at http://ceoas.oregonstate.edu/ships/rcrv.

NSF is committed to supporting marine seismic research of high national interest. Over the past year, OCE has worked with the research community, the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System and other stakeholders to make progress on seismic planning, including a workshop to address scientific and technological drivers (http://bit.ly/2fFTWsu), a Regional Framework Plan (http://bit.ly/2fYz7tg) and a community survey on seismic research needs (http://bit.ly/2fuGahb). As a component of its effort to develop a long-term, stable seismic capability, last year NSF released a Dear Colleague Letter (http://bit.ly/2fN5JIN) seeking expressions of interest regarding new financial and/or managerial models that would provide marine seismic capabilities to meet the expected needs of academic research scientists.

OCE Investments in Service to Society
Contributing to Coastal Sustainability. In 2016, the NSF Coastal Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability program funded a third set of awards totaling $13 million to study coasts in the U.S. and around the world. The program, largely supported by OCE, funds research on topics such as sustainability of coastal systems, management decisions and ecological functions, new ocean acidification modeling tools, and landscape dynamics.

Understanding Changes in Biodiversity. NSF, including support from OCE, funded 10 new awards totaling nearly $19 million in 2016 through the Dimensions of Biodiversity program, a unique research initiative that integrates multiple areas of study, fills gaps in knowledge and has the potential to lead to significant progress in areas of societal need. The program links various aspects of biodiversity, offering opportunities to produce rapid advances in understanding the creation, maintenance and loss of biodiversity.

Searching for El Faro. In 2016, NSF provided support to the search for the voyage data recorder (VDR) of the El Faro, a U.S.-flagged cargo ship that sank in 2015 during Hurricane Joaquin in transit from Florida to Puerto Rico. All 33 crewmembers were lost. One of the search missions employed the AUV Sentry, built with NSF funding and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). Equipped with a sophisticated suite of sensors and able to explore at depths up to 6,000 m, Sentry located the VDR, which ultimately led to its recovery. Search efforts involved the National Transportation Safety Board, the U.S. Coast Guard, WHOI, Tote Services, the U.S. Navy, the University of Rhode Island and other partners.

Looking Further and Deeper. The ROV Jason underwent a $2.4 million upgrade in 2015 to 2016 that will allow Jason to operate to nearly 5,000-m depth as a single-body ROV, with increased payload and heavy-lift capability, as well as in the traditional two-body configuration that can operate to 6,500 m. Upgrades include cable tether with break strength of 70,000 lb., active heave compensated winch, new launch and recovery system, new vehicle frame, new swappable heavy-lift tool skid, new science tool skid, and additional flotation. A full description of the Jason upgrade is at www.whoi.edu/news-release/jason-upgrade.

OCE is continuing its commitment to provide a diverse intellectual and innovative portfolio for ocean science research, technology and education. The goal is to ensure that the U.S. is well poised to first unlock knowledge and then make use of it to advance the nation’s health, prosperity and welfare. Continued efforts in ocean research, technology and education can play a vital role in our future.

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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.