Despite the striking fact that most of the scientists that the world has ever known are alive and working today, despite the fact that this Nation¹s own scientific manpower is doubling every 12 years in a rate of growth more than three times that of our population as a whole, despite that, the vast stretches of the unknown and the unanswered and the unfinished still far outstrip our collective comprehension…Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world’s leading space-faring nation…We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.
John F. Kennedy spoke these words in his address at Rice University on September 12, 1962. Just over a year earlier, the Soviet Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. In that moment the United States fell behind the Soviet Union in the space race. Within one month, Kennedy refocused the U.S. space program with the ultimate goal of placing the first human on the moon. On July 20th 1969 at 10:56 EDT Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the Moon.
As the case in 1962, our nation’s scientific numbers have never been greater or more diverse. Yet sadly, our nation’s commitment to science continues to diminish. Other countries like China are doubling funding of science, while the National Science Foundation budget increases are barely enough to cover inflation.
Scientists, myself included, and the public are troubled that the United States “is at risk of losing its global leadership position in scientific research.”
The country is now ranked 6th in the world with regard to the proportion of its gross domestic product that is invested in research and development and that young high school students score relatively poorly in math and science compared to teens in other nations.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in deep-sea research.
The deep sea remains the least explored habitat on Earth. Ironic given the deep sea is also the most prevalent habitat on Earth. I am troubled by what I see in the field amongst my colleagues around me. Funding and tools required for deep-sea research continue to diminish. A colleague of mine in a recent email, the impetus for this post, stated “When I started my career there were 6-7 [submersibles] in the US available for research. There has been a steady loss of [submersible] assets since then.” With regard to funding, my American deep-sea colleagues seem to largely support their research program by doing research in other areas, like NSF supported polar or shallow water research, piecing in deep-sea research when rare funds or opportunities are available. I fund my own program through general evolutionary research funding at NSF as opposed to deep-sea specific programs. The gem of the United States deep-sea research, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), is supported by the private Packard Foundation. One of deep-sea science’s most valued long-term ecological research sites, Station M (post, post, post), has struggled over the years to find government funding. Research at Station M now continues at MBARI again due to a private foundation. The massive increase in deep-sea biology publications in the last decade by U.S. researchers largely reflects the $100 million, 10 year, Census of Marine Life initiative funded by the Sloan Foundation, another private foundation.
And because the lack of assets and funding, what I observe around me is diminishing number of younger generations filling the positions of deep-sea researchers. Our prominent rank as leading country in deep-sea science, first to discover high deep-sea diversity and hydrothermal vents, will be lost.
In the past decade U.S. government funding of deep-sea science dwindled. During my career, the first to go was the Office of Naval Research followed by the Department of Energy, both moving away from funding basic deep-sea science.
Another blow is imminent.
John R. Smith, the Science Director at the Hawai‘i Undersea Research Laboratory, sent an email out notifying the community that
NOAA has zeroed out funding for the Undersea Research Program (NURP) for FY13 beginning Oct 1, 2012, and put all the centers on life support funding (or less) for the current year. Many other NOAA programs, mostly extramural ones, have been cut to some level, though it appears only NURP and another have had their funding zeroed out completely
Striking is that within the FY13 NOAA Budget the Office of Ocean Exploration, the division that contains NURP, took the second biggest cut of all programs (-16.5%). Sadly, the biggest cut came to education programs (-55.1%).
NOAA’s National Under Research Program (NURP) is one of the last programs in the United States, outside of the National Science Foundation, to support deep-sea science. NURP’s annual budget is around $4 million which supports 3 centers and a habitat covering the entire Pacific, West Coast & Polar Regions, east Coast & Gulf of Mexico, and an underwater habitat in the Florida Keys.
National Undersea Research Program -$4.0M: NOAA determined that NURP was a lower-priority function within its portfolio of research activities, particularly given that other avenues of Federal funding for such activities might be pursued. NOAA will continue to support the Ocean Exploration program.
I am unclear what these other funding sources are. Please somebody let me know! NSF’s Biological Oceanography program does fund deep-sea research, along with everything else in marine biology and biological oceanography, but funding rates of proposals hover between 5-10%, similar to other programs at NSF. The tragedy at hand, in addition to NURP being an agency that still funds basic deep-sea science and exploration, is the potential loss of a vital asset.
NURP also supports Smith’s organization the Hawai‘i Undersea Research Laboratory (HURL). HURL maintains and operates the only other U.S. publically held human operated submersible, Pisces 4 and Pisces 5, outside the Alvin at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. HURL’s community tools not only include the Pisces IV and V but remotely operative vehicles also sadly rare in the United States. With just $2.5 million a year HURL operates all these vehicles and 20 support staff vital to operating and logistics. And somehow, much to my astonishment, there still seems to be money left over to support some science.
$4 million is a minute fraction (0.08%) of NOAA’s requested $5,060,400,000 2013 budget. Let’s see what that extra $4 million looks like in NOAA’s requested budget
Citizens of the United States are at turning point. If we choose path A, our current one, we relinquish our place of prominence in deep-sea science, and science in general. We deny our country’s greatness as explorers; the legacy that Kennedy envisioned. Similar to our dismantling of NASA’s manned space flight program, we turn our backs on manned deep-sea discovery. We forfeit job creation, economic stimulus, and technological innovation that emerges out of basic scientific research, especially that centered on meeting the extremes of exploring an environment covered by 2.5 miles of water. We turn over deep ocean exploration to private enterprise and the wealthiest amongst us.
I choose path B. I choose the path where we, as Kennedy stated in 1962, “measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone.” I choose the path where we investigate and discover the mysteries of the deep oceans as an open and public effort. I choose for the taxpayer to become partners with scientists to share in share in our discovery, ambition, and passion. I choose a path where we are originators, as opposed to observers, of innovative and impactful science. I choose path B because the American spirit is to reduce “vast stretches of the unknown and the unanswered” and to thrive when “the unfinished still far outstrip our collective comprehension.” Ultimately, I believe that $4 million is a bargain for submersibles that offer us a view and knowledge of Earth’s last frontier.
If you too choose path B, then I must ask you to join me in the task at hand. I ask you to write a letter of support of both NURP and HURL to one of the Hawaii Senators, Dan Inouye, who happens to chair the Senate Committee on Appropriations, with a copy to the NOAA Director Jane Lubchenco. Their contact information is listed below.
The Honorable Dan Inouye
United States Senate
722 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510-1102
DC Phone: 202-224-3934
DC Fax: 202-224-6747
Dr. Jane Lubchenco
Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, NOAA
1401 Constitution Avenue NW Room 5128
Washington DC 20230
UPDATE: John R. Smith states in a followup email ”we actually need 3-4M to thrive and do enough sea days to make it all worthwhile” in contrast to the 2.5M they actually receive.
UPDATE” You may also wish to peruse the members of the Appropriations Committee to see if any of the senators are from your home state as another letter target. Here is a list of the 18 members specifically on the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies: http://appropriations.senate.gov/sc-commerce.cfm And here is a list of the 30 members of Appropriations as a whole: http://appropriations.senate.gov/about-members.cfm