U.S. federal funding for exploration of the nation’s offshore exclusive economic zone and of the global ocean should be much higher than currently budgeted, according to a recent letter that the Ocean Exploration Advisory Board (OEAB) sent to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The agency established OEAB, an independent U.S. federal advisory committee, in 2014 to provide advice on ocean exploration to NOAA and the nation.
The ocean exploration program within NOAA received approximately $32 million for fiscal year (FY) 2016. However, in a 27 April letter to NOAA’s chief scientist and other agency officials, the board wrote that previous national studies “envision annual funding of $75 million to execute ocean exploration activities.” A report of the President’s Panel for Ocean Exploration issued in 2000 recommended that amount.
The board’s letter and a related one sent to NOAA administrator Kathryn Sullivan the same day also recommend that NOAA play a more proactive role in coordinating ocean exploration among federal agencies. The board’s letter calls upon NOAA also to work more vigorously to draw in federal and private funding for ocean exploration and to provide some specific ocean observations that are needed in certain regions, including the Arctic, among other measures. NOAA, through its Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (OER), coordinates the only federal program to systematically explore the oceans.
Board Chair Sets a Higher Funding Goal
“America’s future depends on understanding the oceans,” the OEAB board mentioned in a statement that the group approved at its recent meeting about why more exploration is needed. “We explore the oceans because their health and resilience are vital to our economy and to our lives: climate, food, shipping, national security, medicine, and natural resources,” the summary also said.
The U.S. national ocean exploration program “probably should be at least $200 million,” Vice Admiral Paul G. Gaffney II, U.S. Navy (Ret.), chair of the OEAB, told Eos in an interview. “I just think it hasn’t earned all the respect that it’s due yet.”
The White House requested $19 million for FY 2017, the same amount it requested for FY 2016, whereas the FY 2018 budget request, already in early formulation, shows hints of some improvement, according to OEAB.
Gaffney said that NOAA, an agency within the Department of Commerce, doesn’t have the same budgeting flexibility as the Department of Defense or even NASA and that it might be difficult to move funding around.
Alan Leonardi, NOAA’s OER director, called the advice to the agency “positive.” He did not comment specifically on budget levels but told Eos that “there are a lot of competing demands for federal resources.”
Leonardi said he agrees with much of the board’s advice to NOAA. “My reservations are that, given the budget resources that we have, can we accomplish everything?” he asked. He added that NOAA officials will respond to the board after reviewing the letters.
—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer