Losing Deep-Sea Science in the United States

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.

From NOAA’s 2013 budget highlights

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

Website with additional contact info for him

Dr. Jane Lubchenco

Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, NOAA

1401 Constitution Avenue NW Room 5128

Washington DC 20230

Phone:  202-482-3436

Email:  [email protected]

website: http://www.noaa.gov/lubchenco.html

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


Dr. M (1729 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Assistant Director of Science for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, a National Science Foundation supported initiative. He has conducted deep-sea research for 20 years and published over 50 papers in the area. He has participated in and led dozens of oceanographic expeditions taken him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses on how energy drives the biology of marine invertebrates from individuals to ecosystems, specifically, seeking to uncover how organisms are adapted to different levels of carbon availability, i.e. food, and how this determines the kinds and number of species in different parts of the oceans. Craig’s research has been featured on National Public Radio, Discovery Channel, Fox News, National Geographic and ABC News. In addition to his scientific research, Craig also advocates the need for scientists to connect with the public and is the founder and chief editor of the acclaimed Deep-Sea News (http://deepseanews.com/), a popular ocean-themed blog that has won numerous awards. His writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web. His forthcoming book, Science of the South (http://www.scienceofthesouth.com/), connects cultural icons of South such as pecan pie with the science behind them.

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12 comments on “Losing Deep-Sea Science in the United States
  1. I agree with your assessment of our general enthusiasm, or lack of – for research. Dollars are being funneled directly toward current problems as opposed to the general understanding of ourselves and habitation, which in my opinion are a big part of most solutions. I will say that modern science can sometimes lack innovation. It’s a double-edged sword that is part of our academic training. We are not taught or encouraged to follow that unbeaten path.
    Personally, deep sea exploration is as important to me as the exploration of space. But as time goes on, research dollars will be even harder to come by. I think our scientists and research planners need to become leaner and keener, while true innovation will be the key to success.

  2. Clarify “deep sea research” please? NSF has funded the ALVIN upgrade, Navy is building two new Ocean class R/V (and retiring two 45 yo Global class). The cabled observatories will offer some opportunities (but the infrastructure costs will eat their lunch unles they find novell ways to power, connect sensors and retrieve data.) Agree the public lack of interest in science is scary and the ocean research budgets aren’t going up….X Prize folks are looking for a challenge topic to energize the American public about the oceans. Any ideas?

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  4. US is broke. Public debt level is increasing. FED is running out of ammunition for schemes of funding. Shadow banking system continues to implode. Trillions of dollars are at risk in derivatives. Cities, counties, municipalities are going bankrupt. Pensions are being defunded. Client monies at investment houses are disappearing into black holes. Where will the money come from to support research ?

  5. Doug, yes, we have had Alvin funded…at a much lower level than was originally requested, necessitating the 2 phase upgrade process. And yes, there are new ships in the budget…because the existing vessels are aged and need to be replaced. So that’s great…we can get out to sea, but if there’s no funding to actually DO the research we’re still SOL. Deep sea research does not just constitute ships and subs and field work…it is the dollars that pay salaries and buy lab equipment and hire graduate students. And this is where the US is falling behind. This past year IODP had its funding cut so badly that they had to cancel an entire scheduled expedition that was already far into the planning stages (I believe they were even hiring the shipboard science party).

    As for cabled observatories….if the US was as willing as Canada to commit to how important they are, OOI would be fine. NEPTUNE Canada already has a number of sites cabled and instrumented and are pursuing new ones. Power has not been an issue for our seafloor instruments, nor has connecting. There are groups working towards new data transmission methods (and quite successfully), but these things are (again) underfunded due to the current funding climate….meaning that it’s not going to happen overnight without a commitment to fund projects like theirs.

    And as a point of monetary clarification…we run the entire deep-submergence facility (NDSF…this includes personnel for Alvin, JASON, and Sentry) for a YEAR on far less than it cost for one space shuttle launch.

  6. Deep Sea Research has been deep sixed in favour of war. In case you were wondering where science is headed in the US.

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  9. Sylvester, yes the US has a lot of public debt, but so what? We are the issuers of our own currency and can never go broke as long as there are still real resources (in this case, scientists and technicians). Also, with the current cost to the treasury to borrow money it would be foolish not to take the money and invest it, and science is one of the best investments a nation can make. A $1000 loan is a great idea if you make $2000 from it, after all.

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