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Ocean research funding gap

Guest Blogger

Would greater funding for ocean science research and technology have left us better prepared to respond to the Gulf coast oil spill? Ellen Prager, a scientist with extensive experience in undersea research, argues that investment in ocean sciences takes a low priority compared with budgeting for higher-profile ventures such as space exploration. Yet the sea covers nearly three quarters of the Earth’s surface and supplies many of our needs. Prager, author of “Chasing Science at Sea: Racing Hurricanes, Stalking Sharks, and Living Undersea with Ocean Experts," just out in paperback from the University of Chicago Press, hopes the disaster will serve as a wake-up call for Washington.

By Ellen Prager

Several things are now all too clear from the Gulf coast oil disaster. BP, the oil industry, and the U.S. government were unprepared to respond quickly and effectively to the accident and its aftermath. The lack of investment in undersea research, clean-up technology, and ocean science over the past few decades has made matters worse. One wonders, if a comparable fix was needed 200 miles from Earth at the International Space Station, would the technology and know-how be at hand?

Ocean science has long been the poor stepchild to space exploration, even though the sea covers nearly three-quarters of the Earth’s surface and is vitally important to society and the health of our planet.

For example, fishing and ocean tourism and recreation provide millions of jobs and billions of people rely on seafood for protein and as part of a healthy diet. The sea is now believed to be the greatest repository of potential pharmaceuticals and the ecosystem services it provides -- such as a sink for carbon and a source of oxygen -- in the thermoregulation of the planet and in biodiversity are invaluable.

Officials are now scrambling to assess, monitor, and determine the impact of the oil spill using satellite imagery, computer models, ships, and remote technologies. But this last minute clamor points to a larger problem: a lack of prioritization of and funding for ocean science and management, which now means that we are less able or ready to respond to disasters like this.

Today there are fewer research vessels available because some have been laid up or leased out to other industries. Along with ships have gone deep-sea submersibles and the experts needed to operate and maintain them. Infrastructure across the nation to support ocean science is old and crumbling. A lack of investment and the current economic situation has also greatly affected researchers: programs have been shut down and scientists have been laid off or are at risk of losing their jobs.

In previous decades, when undersea technology was critical to military operations or we were looking for ways to better exploit marine resources, investment in ocean science was strong. There was also a gee-whiz factor about humans first entering and exploring the sea. Since then, however, ocean science budgets have declined and the community has been unable to bring sufficient attention to the benefits of investing in marine research, technology development, improved management, and education as well as the dangers of not doing so.

We also seem to be a nation that responds to crises rather than invests in long-term planning or prevention. As an independent agency with significant funding and an effective public relations strategy, NASA has done well. But with multiple agencies overseeing a wide range of ocean issues, conflicting missions sometimes in the very same agency, and without better public relations, ocean science has lagged behind space exploration.

Our reliance on the sea usually goes somewhat unseen, but today it is impossible to ignore. Along the Gulf coast and in Florida, the seafood, recreation, and tourism industries are being hit hard, and the effects may linger and spread for years.

Yesterday was World Ocean Day, marking the beginning of Capitol Hill Oceans Week. The disaster spreading in the Gulf should be a wake up call for Washington. If we want to operate in the deep-sea and continue to rely on our precious marine resources, we need to better balance use with conservation and safety, and recommit to investment in undersea technology, science, and related education.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  June 9, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: ocean science funding; oil spill and ocean science investment; ocean sciences vs. space exploration  
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