This is an invited contribution. A marine biologist, who posts here under the pseudonym, Dour Marine Biologist, offers a counter to the media and even DSN hype on Cameron’s dive. I find these points below worth consideration and dialogue. I want to hear your comments below.
Since James Cameron’s record-breaking dive on March 26th the media and the marine blogosphere has been heady with the news of a new milestone in deep-sea exploration. And certainly, it has all the makings of a great story. Billionaire filmmaker who has made big-budget movies about the Abyss builds sub and goes down himself amidst great personal danger and challenge!! Drama! Story! Adventure!
Much of Cameron’s “adventure” has been positively received and deservedly so, but
I think a lot of well-intentioned folks have given Mr. Cameron and this whole expedition a bit of a pass and so, I thought I would present a counterpoint and some skeptical questions to Cameron’s efforts and what they might mean for deep-sea science.
1. Conflict of Interest?
Probably the biggest issue that I think we should be looking at was/is that this expedition was funded primarily by private money, including the watch-maker Rolex and Cameron himself.
A lot of people are accustomed to reading about/watching deep-sea biology that is in some way shape or form, funded by public money and so we have a different set of expectations. The National Science Foundation, NOAA, NMFS, or what-have you. Many of these publicly funded agencies are funded by tax dollars and as such, are intended for everyone’s benefit. Publications should be accessible to anyone who wants them. Materials and data collected are ultimately mandated for open and public consumption owing to the fact that they are underwritten by public tax dollars. Now, its true, the expedition has “academic partnerships” with National Geographic and Scripps Institute of Oceanography, but how much balance is there between the profit vs. non-profit interests?
Which priorities does the mission obey? Are specimens, video and other data collected by the sub going to be available to the greater scientific community?
My concern here is that private concerns really have no obligation to hand over data or artifcacts collected under their auspice. And so far, we have seen very little video made available to the public.
Apparently, we have no other samples from the bottom other than a 50 milliliter “half core” of mud. And yes, that has apparently been taken for further study. Great! But ultimately, that’s still a clump full of mud. What happens on subsequent dives (assuming that the hydraulics get fixed) when/if they end up finding further specimens-shells, rocks and/or minerals, more video or other data that might live up to the fantastic promise and potential of deep-sea research but isn’t available to the public because of “proprietary interests”??? Presumably Rolex and/or Cameron have first say? Does it go to a museum? Or to a personal collection? Does it get made into a TV show before a scientific paper? Will science benefit from anything collected on his prior dives to the New Britain Trench? (or have we already gotten data?)
How much dive time will go towards scientific versus other priorities? Whether commercial or otherwise? What implications are there for data collection? Maybe the DeepSea Challenge has all of these-but I couldn’t find mention of them on their available resources.
I have never heard of or seen specimens or information from Cameron’s scientific dives find their way into published scientific papers. Will materials from this dive begin to find their way into formal scientific repositories? Time will tell.
2. Publicity-Good or Bad? What has been the public impact?
Probably the most “hot button” part of this whole endeavor is the fact that a millionaire celebrity filmmaker is the primary force behind a significant scientific adventure. Its been suggested that this event is a great promotion for deep-sea science and exploration that could even lead to the reinvigoration of the US’ ailing manned submersible program and lead to a new age of exploration and marine research!
Well, so far, I haven’t seen this. No direct endorsements from Cameron, Rolex or even National Geographic to save NURP (other than Cameron’s statement that funding “stinks”). I haven’t seen any shift in public opinion regarding the severe de-funding that will brutally affect the National Undersea Research Program. I’ve heard of no reconsideration by Congress or the leadership of NOAA of deep-sea research since the dive has taken place.
There’s clearly a LOT of media attention to see a big stunt like this underway, but what tangible actions have we seen by these adventurers to aid marine science? Have we seen donations of money or resources to permit further research? Donations to marine research? To fund students, post-docs or better yet an endowment to hire an aspiring new marine biologist at university??
There is a word out there: INFOTAINMENT. The term describes entertainment with an educational base, it may or may not have real science behind it-but who cares? Its entertaining and probably interesting but not really scientific or not even really educational. Is that what this has become? Something that has been “washed” with scientific legitimacy but is ultimately there only to rack up viewers for advertising and attention for the celebrity?
I’m kind of surprised that this one hasn’t been brought up before. I can think of no better example of the disparity between the rich 1% and the poor 99% than deep-sea science performed by government agencies versus the corporate funded Deepsea Challenger Expedition.
A short and simple look at compared costs gives us some idea of the estimated costs. According to the recent announcement for NURP cuts, their budget will be sunk by 4 to 5 million dollars. This represents submersible operations from a 30+ year program, covering 2 subs, the ship, an undersea laboratory as well as personnel and so forth.
In contrast, the cost of the Deepsea Challenger expedition ITSELF seems likely to cost MORE than 5 million USD. A similar submersible from this 2009 BBC article indicated that its cost was about 1.5 million dollars. Consider further that the Deepsea Challenger has more bells and whistles (hi-def cameras etc.) plus modifications for diving to 10,000 m depths, plus ship time, fuel, engineers, ships crew, insurance, and other considerations, such as test deployments and so forth. Its not unreasonable to say that the cost of this expedition alone was probably more than the cost of one year of NURP’s budget.
Criticism, especially anonymous criticism, is easy on the Internet. And I’m not particularly angry with anyone..least of all James Cameron. I DO want to see how his efforts will result in an expansion of our knowledge and I would love to see this dive become a catalyst for greater deep-sea research. But scientists are often exploited and underappreciated. And scientific resources are few and precious.
I think that if this expedition is to mean something MORE than a publicity stunt and if Cameron and the people involved are truly dedicated, than more can and should be done. Most scientists work their asses off trying to get a few years of funding. Researchers try very hard to make sure that their time and energy are spent in a way that best serves those grants and scientific endeavor. Expeditions like this can be a fun diversion-but ultimately they have to be weighed against how much data/education/training/specimens/etc. came out of them.
People talk about this expedition as a great “milestone” as if no one had ever done any deep-sea exploration after the Trieste’s first hadal dive in 1960. But remember that deep-sea research in the last 30 years has been fairly active with multiple and regular visits to depths >1000 m with less frequent but dependable visits to ~3000 m. Alvin gets to 3000 m (ed. note: Alvin is rated to 4500m, after its upgrade will be able to dive 6500m) and Pisces V can get to 2000 m and they’ve been doing it for decades. Alvin has been used as a vehicle for data collection of nearly 2000 papers (i.e. contributions to science and society).
There’s no denying that 10,000 m is deeper than we’ve ever gone but I don’t think we should allow ourselves to forget that there was a foundation for that “milestone” that shouldn’t be ignored.
To modify a statement from the economist Elizabeth Warren
There is nobody who got to the bottom of the ocean on their own-Nobody.
You built a submarine that got down there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You followed a route down there based on research and science the rest of us built up. Scientists and students who have given openly and freely of their time and money made this possible and give this dive scientific credibility. You didn’t have to take a complete random, uneducated guess as to what would be down there because people went down there and saw a LOT of the deep-sea before you. This was work the rest of us did.
You built this sub, and funded this expedition into something terrific. God bless –keep all the glory. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.