Today, Scott Olson published an editorial at TCPalm, a local news site for Palm Beach area on some very deep misgivings that all of us in deep-sea biologist have regarding the state of Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and its assets – the Johnson Sea Link submersibles. It was a poignant and accurate assessment from the heart of a man who spent 14 years as part of the submersible and robotics team. This hits particularly heavy given the closing down of the Space Shuttle program, but an equally disastrous yet barely sung development is that at the end of the month all remaining submersible personnel will be laid off permanently.
40 years, 9000 dives and 2 submersibles thrown down the drain. Regardless if you are from MBARI, WHOI, University of Washington or any other submersible research competitor there is no doubt that this long and prestigious career should not have passed away so unceremoniously. The Sea Links have been featured in numerous documentaries on National Geographic, Discover, PBS, local stations around the Gulf and Atlantic. Innumerable discoveries in the deep-sea have made using thee versatile machines and highly-skilled crew.
I had the pleasure of going down and using them in research at Gulf Mexico seeps between 500-700 meters depth where I witnessed first hand in a wide frame (thanks to the acrylic sphere) the magnitude of the huge expanse of giant tubeworm gardens. But my history with these machines is but a mere speck on the illustrious careers they have inspired and started. It was just over 2 years ago, in May 2009, that I wrote about my dismay with falling apart of HBOI and their vessels and subs. This set off a storm of posts and comments here on Deep Sea News with much support from the community.
More recently, the Sea Link was pivotal in helping researchers access the deep-sea to understand effects the Deepwater Horizon oil spill might have on the important coral communities, in addition to giving journalists a first hand look at the disaster so that they could relay this to the public. (Over 10,000 hits exist for “Johnson Sea Link” + “oil spill”.) What a disservice we are doing to our country by not maintaining a fleet of deep submergence vehicles close to our borders which can rapidly respond to crises such as oil spills! With so few manned submersibles operating out of the USA, and each being used for research purposes all over the world, we kicked the proverbial pony on ourselves here.
The subs and the vessels and the HBOI are clearly needed for advancement in ocean sciences, but Scott hits on a very real point:
The reasons for the demise of such a successful program are convoluted, but in my opinion they all point back to a lack of visionary leadership at multiple levels, including at the institute and in state and federal governments. In my opinion, the endowment bequeathed to the institute upon the deaths of its co-founders in the 1980s was severely mismanaged and the subsequent FAU managers did not appreciate the value of the program.
Most of the blame, however, lies with the shortsightedness of the U.S. public and the counterproductive infighting at the program-bloated sources of federal funding; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation.
There is plenty of blame to go around. But if we dumping millions of dollars of oceanographic equipment in foreign lands and shutting down an American icon such as the space shuttle program, what are our priorities? A commenter on Olson’s article, who goes by clearstory, suggests:
“The US is walking away from more than technical and scientific leadership . It’s getting to the point we don’t manufacture anything other than weapons.”
Politics will always be a barrier to progress, but when we lose our icons of exploration and research – the ship, the sub, the shuttle – what will symbolize the pride we feel in American innovation and scientific leadership? As Olson says, some of the blame lies in the shortsightedness of the US public. But how they appreciate what they don’t know exists.
Lets look to ourselves, the marine science community, to place some of that blame on. We have failed to capture the American imagination of at-sea exploration, discovery and scientific research. We tried to do this with the “WOW” factor: new species! WOW! big squids! WOW! strange fish! WOW! But I think people want more than that. They want to know why we are down there, what we hope to accomplish and how this affects them. We’ve underestimated the intelligence of that unknown quantity we called “the public” and I think, frankly, they are bored.
Hell, I’m bored. I was bored with my research in grad school cause it wasn’t relevant to people. My advisor asked me to prepare a response for “why should the American public fund you research?” Every time I caught myself saying bullshit statements like: to advance basic understanding of… *yawn*, because we need to understand species distributions because …. *yawn*, we’ve found so many important and potentially life-saving medical compounds from deep-sea animals…. well, ok that one is pretty damn useful but not at all what I do. Why should the “average American”, i.e. my parents, fund my work? They shouldn’t. Unless finding new things and going new places excites them.
NASA has done a pretty solid job of capitalizing on the human spirit, American patriotism and sense of awe and pride in the past with manned space exploration, astronauts and the shuttles. Marine science on the other hand, has not. How often are marine biologists on The Today Show, for instance. Does the public appreciate the dedication and training of oceanographers, sub and ship crew in the same way as astronauts, mission control and NASA engineers? I don’t think so. And now, we silently have blood on our hands. Not the first ax to fall, but a heavy one.
The solution is simple. Give a damn. Give a damn like you never gave a damn in your life! Show off you passion for the ocean at every available opportunity. Make it a lifestyle choice. Make as much noise for the ocean as you can! SHOW people what you do.
YOUR SCIENCE IS NOTHING WITHOUT THE SUPPORT OF PEOPLE.
Never forget it either. At the end of Seuss’ The Lorax, the Onceler comes to the realization, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” If marine scientists don’t seem care, or at the very least appear to care, why should anyone else? I know we care! So lets show it to everyone! Write your local papers, indy mags, popular science mags. Tell you press officers everything you do. Make a big deal for the ocean! We can’t afford to throw away any more tools.