R/V Sally Ride arrives in Seattle, Wash., after a cruise to Global Station Papa near the Alaska Gyre in the North Pacific.
R/V Sally Ride, operated by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, arrives in Seattle, Wash., after a cruise to maintain moorings, along with several ancillary projects, at Global Station Papa near the Alaska Gyre in the North Pacific. Academic oceanographic research aboard U.S. Academic Research Fleet vessels currently includes large multidisciplinary experiments with extensive arrays of instrumentation and requires complex shipping logistics that often involve foreign ports. Credit: Eric Buck

Over the past few years, challenging logistics and the intricacies of obtaining marine science research authorizations have complicated executing oceanographic cruises. Coordinating scientific research teams from many disciplines and nations with available research vessel facilities and crews involves significant investments of time and resources. These factors, along with the increasing complexity of interacting with various government entities around the world, have revealed the need for a renewed effort by scientists and operators within the U.S. Academic Research Fleet (ARF) to work together to ensure that federally funded field research is well coordinated and successful.

The current global geopolitical environment has created both opportunities and challenges to conducting oceanographic research in foreign waters.

Marine science research builds core knowledge about coastal and deep-ocean processes. But more than that, this work has far-reaching implications for societal impacts associated with ocean and climate phenomena, and it provides science-based assessments of complex Earth-ocean processes and hazards that can inform national and international policy development.

To be successful and productive, oceanographic field studies require excellent coordination between scientists, ship and facility operators, and funding agency representatives. Oceanographic data collection is expensive: In most cases, public funds support science and operations. Safe, efficient, and cost-effective field data acquisition is essential. It is also a reality that the current global geopolitical environment has created both opportunities and challenges to conducting oceanographic research in foreign waters.

A diverse group of oceanographic scientists, University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS) ship operators, and federal agency program managers convened a UNOLS working group to review a range of topics concerning planning and execution of U.S. oceanographic field research. The primary focus of the deliberations involved work in international waters, where ships enter and return to foreign ports, as well as work involving field studies within the exclusive economic zones of foreign nations and the requisite planning, logistics, and permitting involved with those efforts (Figure 1).

Some U.S. academic research cruises funded by federal agencies required foreign clearance requests and port stops.
Fig. 1. Total number of U.S. academic research cruises funded by federal agencies (yellow), compared with those cruises that required foreign clearance requests (blue) and port stops (green). Data are from the UNOLS database.

The committee polled many ARF operators involved with supporting field work in foreign and international waters throughout the world’s oceans to better understand their protocols, and they discussed best practices and communications methods that each operating institution employed in their work to support scientists using their ships and facilities.

Below are some recommendations that were developed to help guide scientists, agency program managers, and academic vessel operators in their varied collaborative functions as they carry out productive oceanographic research in the 21st century. The subcommittee produced a final white paper and appendix that can be accessed online, and these provide more detailed, specific information on some of the key topics the committee discussed.

An Extensive Enterprise

Each year, U.S. federal agencies spend hundreds of millions of dollars funding basic research in Earth and ocean sciences. The National Science Foundation (NSF) alone supports approximately 24% of all federally funded research conducted at U.S. academic institutions. In the United States, the NSF funded an average of more than 140 research cruises a year between 2016 and 2018, with principal investigators and science participants from nearly every state and territory.

UNOLS serves to coordinate academic oceanographic research in the United States through participation by 59 member institutions that provide access to the oceans through various means, along with the 18 ships in the ARF. Oceanographic research often requires coordinated ship and vehicle facilities; recent additions include moored and cabled arrays that provide 24/7 monitoring at seafloor laboratory sites. At these sites, sophisticated technologies enable field data acquisition and analysis of large volumes of spatially and temporally correlated data.

Planning Strategically

We identified a need for all academic research vessel operators to compare their approaches to cruise planning and to aim at a more consistent ARF-wide consensus regarding the timing and communication protocols for that planning effort. Revised protocols should allow ship operators to better coordinate with the diverse community of scientists that use ships and the myriad details involved in conducting oceanographic field work in foreign waters, as well as in U.S. coastal regions where smaller ARF vessels operate. For instance, academic vessel operators should strive to have a single point of contact within their organizations to ensure that communications and action items with scientists are clearly established and successfully resolved.

Vessel operators and scientists must develop new communication strategies to accomplish the many details required for oceanographic field research to be successful and cost-effective.

By the same measure, scientists need to be directly involved in the details of cruise planning and logistics with ship operators, especially when working within exclusive economic zones of foreign nations and when shipping scientific equipment into or out of foreign ports. On a case-by-case basis, judiciously applied proactive strategies may include expedition-style shipping that anticipates the needs of multiple consecutive cruises and safekeeping of critical equipment on board to avoid holdups in problematic ports. These strategies require careful advance coordination among multiple principal investigators and the operating institution.

Vessel operators and scientists must develop new communication strategies to accomplish the many details required for oceanographic field research to be successful and cost-effective. Normal facility costs involved in executing seagoing science programs (e.g., port costs, crane charges to load or unload equipment, and clearance fees related to embarking and disembarking science personnel) are now generally consistent throughout the ARF. This consistency is one very positive outcome that the committee recommendations presented in the UNOLS white paper. That said, it is important that the principal investigator and operator discuss all port call operations to clearly understand responsibilities, logistics, and projected costs.

Lining Up the Permits

R/V Sikuliaq crew members deploy ocean bottom seismometers for measuring strain along the Aleutian subduction zone.
Crew members aboard the R/V Sikuliaq, operated by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, deploy trawl-resistant ocean bottom seismometers, designed and built by the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, for measuring strain along the Aleutian subduction zone. Credit: Lindsay Worthington

Scientific principal investigators and chief scientists have the responsibility to familiarize themselves with the requirements of obtaining necessary visas and permits to conduct research and collect samples within foreign exclusive economic zones. Comprehensive information available from the U.S. State Department can facilitate finding current permit information for research in foreign countries (see URLs listed in the white paper and appendix). Proactive visa and permit applications are critical, as many countries have tightened their requirements.

Ultimately, it is the scientists’ responsibility to identify all types of permitting required and the types of visas that shipboard scientists must have to accomplish the stated research goals. Scientists should investigate these requirements in the proposal writing phase. They should include this information in the proposal project description so that reviewers, panel members, and program officers can properly assess the likelihood of success in gaining the necessary authorizations to conduct the proposed field research.

Transporting Equipment

Shipping science equipment to and from foreign ports is critical for conducting successful research cruises throughout the global ocean. Engaging with reputable U.S. freight forwarders and foreign corresponding agents is essential to ensure proper handling of the equipment and to identify the required customs and freight forwarding documentation. For all cruise-related shipments, science principal investigators and chief scientists should ensure that they have followed well-established protocols and that different science groups using the vessel for a cruise have coordinated their shipments with the ship’s operator.

Operators and scientists should share information on complex shipping logistics that pertain to specific countries.

Scientists planning a research cruise can gain valuable information by talking to operators and principal investigators who have previously obtained permits and marine science research authorizations for a particular country and mobilized from specific foreign ports. For this reason, it is important for scientists to widely disseminate knowledge about handling cruise logistics and shipments. Operators and scientists should also share information on complex shipping logistics that pertain to specific countries.

UNOLS is in the process of revising its postcruise assessment report (PCAR) to include sharing of this type of information and the recent experiences of principal investigators shipping to or from foreign ports. For example, cargo storage costs are minor compared to the cost of a late ship departure due to unforeseen shipment delays. To avoid delays, it is crucial to plan equipment shipments to arrive in foreign ports well before the scheduled ship arrival.  Commerce liaisons at many U.S. embassies commonly maintain lists of reputable freight forwarders and shipping agents with local experience and will share this information with science parties and ARF operators upon request.

Working Together to Ensure Success

Collaboration continues to be a hallmark of U.S. oceanographic research. Successful collaborations include a robust proposal submission and review process, coordinated funding of highly capable vessels and facilities required to conduct science at sea, and the UNOLS consortium of ARF vessel operators to coordinate schedules and improve oceanographic capabilities at all levels for future researchers.

Scientists and vessel operators are key stakeholders in conducting oceanographic research, but ultimately, global citizens benefit from new knowledge of ocean and Earth processes. Thus, developing and improving new approaches to coordinate and streamline planning and execution of 21st century oceanographic research will benefit everyone.

Author Information

Alice Doyle, University-National Oceanographic Laboratories System, University of Rhode Island, Narragansett; Daniel J. Fornari (dfornari@whoi.edu), Department of Geology and Geophysics, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Mass.; Elizabeth Brenner, Ship Operations and Marine Technical Support, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, Calif.; and Andreas P. Teske, Department of Marine Sciences, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


Doyle, A., D. J. Fornari, E. Brenner, and A. P. Teske (2019), Strategies for conducting 21st century oceanographic research, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO115729. Published on 26 February 2019.

Text © 2019. The authors. CC BY 3.0
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