Caption: A view of the Atlantic Ocean. The National Science Foundation has endorsed a report calling for a rebalance of its ocean sciences budget. Credit: Milan Boers, CC BY 2.0

The National Science Foundation (NSF) plans to cut back on escalating ocean research infrastructure costs and shift that funding to core research and technology programs, the agency announced on 11 May.

The move is NSF’s response to a 23 January report by the U.S. National Research Council (NRC) that recommended a major course correction to adjust an imbalance in funding. The agency has endorsed most of the report’s recommendations, including reducing NSF funding for the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI), the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP), and the academic research fleet and reallocating that funding to core research and technology programs.

The NRC report, Sea Change: 2015–2025 Decadal Survey of Ocean Sciences, states that the budget for the Division of Ocean Sciences (OCE) within NSF’s Directorate for Geosciences “has drifted out of balance” because of relatively flat budgets, inflation, and increasing costs of operations and maintenance for OCE major infrastructure. Funding for OCE core research programs amounted to 62% of division funding in 2000 but just 46% in 2014, according to the report. OCE is the principal U.S. federal agency for funding basic research in the ocean sciences.

Budgetary Realignment

NSF’s reply states, “The budgetary realignment between infrastructure and core science and technology is intended to reverse the decline in the proportion of OCE’s budget devoted to supporting PI [principal investigator]–driven research proposals. In support of the Sea Change recommendations, NSF will reverse this decline by allocating the monies resulting from the decrease in infrastructure operation and maintenance spending to the core programs for research and technology.”

“Increased support will be provided to general core science and technology funding, as well as for new initiatives within core programs.”

The reply continues, “Increased support will be provided to general core science and technology funding, as well as for new initiatives within core programs.” However, the agency recognizes that cuts in infrastructure will “present difficult choices and will affect our ability to achieve OCE’s research mission,” according to the reply.

Restoring Core Science and Technology Grants

OCE director Rick Murray told Eos that Sea Change “provides an excellent path forward not only in specifics but in how we think about infrastructure in science. We understand how infrastructure and science mutually support each other and broadly agree that the science support was declining to unacceptable levels. [We] think this path forward is worth pursuing. It should result in the needed restoration of core science and technology grants.”

He said that NSF’s reply to the NRC report “essentially will be a touchstone for us, and I hope the community, as we move forward.”

Reduced Funding for Infrastructure

Among the NRC recommendations that the agency endorses is reducing funding for OOI, which is under construction with a transition to operations this summer. NSF will transfer $2 million in OOI operations funding to core research and technology programs. NRC had recommended “initially and immediately” reducing OOI by 20%; however, NSF plans to reduce funding by close to 20% only after a current OOI cooperative agreement with the agency expires in 2017.

The delayed reduction “is seen as a better alternative to the ‘immediate’ reduction proposed by Sea Change. Allowing OOI to be fully functional will provide critical information for potential proposers to assess and chart the future directions of the facility,” the NSF reply continues.

NSF endorsed the Sea Change recommendation to reduce operating costs for the academic research fleet by 5% and for IODP by 10%. “Sea Change accurately identifies a fundamental financial imbalance between the U.S. contribution and contributions by IODP’s international partners,” NSF’s reply states.

Among the recommendations endorsed, NSF aims to establish periodic infrastructure reviews. The agency also agreed with a set of priority science questions in the report. “We will continue to support excellent oceanographic science in other areas as well,” Murray told Eos. He added that NSF would continue to fine-tune, adapt, and implement its response to the report.

Tough Options

“It’s going to be tough, but the alternative is that unless this [funding] trend was stopped and reversed, there would ultimately be basically no money for ocean science.”

Dave Titley, cochair of the NRC committee that produced Sea Change and a professor at Pennsylvania State University, told Eos that “the ocean science enterprise is the winner” in NSF’s plan but that it would be painful for those involved with infrastructure. “It’s going to be tough, but the alternative is that unless this [funding] trend was stopped and reversed, there would ultimately be basically no money for ocean science,” he said. “Over time, we would frankly lose the intellectual brain power which is really the core of what the ocean enterprise is.”

James Yoder, a member of the committee that produced the report and a former OCE division director, told Eos that NSF’s response “provides a huge boost to the morale of ocean scientists who are struggling to secure proposal funding from the Division of Ocean Sciences. It won’t be easy to implement the changes [NSF] describes, although [the agency] has chosen the right path and deserves our full support.”

Concerns About Infrastructure Cuts

OOI Program Advisory Committee chairman William Boicourt explained to Eos that scientists may not be fully aware of OOI’s potential because “community engagement was an insufficient priority during the intense focus required for the project’s construction phase.”

He said, “If we are to look for good news in this bleak outlook, it is that the Foundation has phased the cuts for OOI and, above all, looked to the community to help make the choices.” Boicourt added that some decisions about what to cut are likely to be “Solomon’s choices” and that “the procedures for making them are somewhat vague at this point.”

Bradford Clement, director of the JOIDES Resolution Science Operator for IODP, which operates the JOIDES Resolution scientific drillship on behalf of NSF, told Eos that he was pleased that NSF recognized efforts the science operator already has made to cut costs while maintaining high levels of performance.

A Measured Response

NSF’s reply was “measured and thoughtful,” according to Susan Avery, president and director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which is involved with OOI and many other infrastructure and science-driven programs. “These are difficult decisions at a time when new infrastructure developed under the understanding of larger NSF budgets is ready for deployment. This new infrastructure will enable new science, but under a flat budget assumption a rebalancing between infrastructure costs and supported science is needed.”

However, “given the uncertainty of this budget assumption based on recent Congressional bills, I am concerned that further cuts in NSF’s ocean science portfolio will make this rebalancing even more challenging,” Avery said. She urged a reassessment of OOI cuts after the initiative is fully formed and the science community recognizes its potential.

Sherri Goodman, president and CEO of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership (COL), expressed support for OOI, which is managed out of COL, and the need for a robust ocean science program. “We support the effort to equitably balance the research and infrastructure portfolio to ensure that the community continues to have access to the sea and adequate resources to provide competitive funding for critical ocean science,” she told Eos. “These are a series of hard choices, no doubt. But they are not unreasonable, given the options.”

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2015), National Science Foundation to rebalance ocean science funding, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO029711. Published on 15 May 2015.

Text © 2015. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0
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