Shouldn’t We Be More Skeptical of the DeepChallenger Dive?

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 auspiceAnd 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?

 3.  Cost?

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.

28 Replies to “Shouldn’t We Be More Skeptical of the DeepChallenger Dive?”

  1. I guess I just wonder, which taxpayer-funded agency was going to do this instead? When was NOAA set to release its manned mobile submersible capable of bringing up samples & video from 7 miles down? If not Cameron, his resources, his love, and his willingness to take on extreme physical risk, then who? If he somehow chose to divulge ZERO of his science, which part of marine science is set back?

    Besides, I have zero access to most taxpayer-funded scientific work unless I spend another $40 to $400 per article/journal to read them. I have a family to feed & healthcare to try to pay — I can’t shell out thousands of dollars to read the latest, best science too.

    What tangible assets have we seen? We’ve seen that the technology — with a granted hiccup — works. A few years ago could we have imagined a manned vessel getting safely down to the deepest place on the planet in just a couple hours? And coming back up even faster? And be a workable machine capable of moving, seeing, collecting?

    Then of course, the big intangible. We’ve seen that a bunch of kids who missed out on the moonshot and the early glory days of the Shuttle will learn that adventure & exploration aren’t a thing of the past — they’re here, right now. There is nothing that is impossible. The whole living world is unlocked. If Challenge can go there & maneuver there & learn there, it can do so anywhere, and that means that we all can. Even if in some dystopian future Cameron locks everything up in an ivory tower & sits on it and we had to rebuild the tech from scratch. His team did it. Another team can too.

  2. Ummm, when you mount 20 million plus an additional 15 in development costs, and take a dive to the deepest spot on the planet you can pretty much say anything you want.

    That’s the deal.

    And as a private enterprise one cup of mud, a half jellyfish, three quarters of a ham sandwich, whatever you bring up is yours and yours alone.

    The media gets to judge if this was a success or not by bandwidth – and it was.

    Everyone is given 24 hours on this planet. That’s the great leveler. It’s what some people do with their 24 hours that distinguishes us from each other.

    Cameron decided to take his 24hrs and create something amazing.

    Did he actually go all the way to the bottom?

    Perhaps you can take your sub and go check. Don’t have one?

    What have you been doing with your 24 hours?

  3. While I welcome skepticism, I think that if one analyzed broader deep-sea research with the same level of scrutiny it too would be found wanting. The main benefit of the Deepsea Challenger expedition was to promote deep-sea exploration.

    A large chunk of deep-sea science is working off of discoveries made in the 1970s and there seems to be little impetus to move forward. Every other grant application begins by stating that we have only explored 1% of the seafloor, but precious few actually propose to add to that 1%. I acknowledge that the last two statements are more hyperbole than fact and laudable exceptions include NOAA’s Ocean Explorer program etc. I am now thinking of all the great papers I’ve read on recent discoveries at unexplored sites, but when you look at a map off where deep-sea samples come from, the picture is far from uniform.

    Not that I blame scientists themselves. I think this situation is in a large part down to funding agencies who demand immediate results that are “world-class”, without acknowledging that such research takes time and a massive amount of exploration. My fear is that we are using up scientific capital (ie raw data) collected years ago without expanding or replacing these expansive datasets. As you pointed out, Cameron’s dive is doing just this and I think you are right to demand more output, but I welcome the private initiative, unfettered by the short-termism of publicly funded programs.

  4. What tax payer funded agency would/could do this instead? How about these guys:
    This website has been around and was circulated during the Cameron dive. Did anyone pay attention to it? Or did they pay attention to Cameron’s efforts?

    I don’t think that anyone has “zero access” to this kind of research. You can always email the author and most will be happy to email you a pdf of the paper. Many of the government publications are available as direct downloads. Here are some coral pubs for example..
    Plus, from the perspective of an author and a grant writer there are numerous agreements that one has to sign which basically make data sharing available to other scientists and so on.

    So the counter argument to some of my comments is “Its his expedition and he can do/say whatever he wants to” uh..well, isn’t that the point? If this was just a big PR exercise and he was honest about that would be fine. But the expedition imposes on scientists and seeks their credibility in support. Does the expedition benefit science? It seems to me that the expedition does not give enough credit to those who came before Cameron or the work that has gone and will go into it.

    Private efforts are fine. I don’t chastise private research, I only seek to REMIND everyone that its NOT the same as research conducted in the public arena and funded by NSF or other govt. agencies. There are significant proprietary differences. There may be faster movement but you give up the expectation of data availability among other things.

  5. There was some skepticism as to which publicly funded institution could make a dive like this? Looks like the Chinese and the Japanese have both developed subs that deploy to 7000 and 6500 meter depths. These aren’t American sub efforts and maybe that’s all the more a wake up call…

  6. Hats off to James Cameron. The man makes a boatload of money and he does with it what he wants. That, to me, is the way things are supposed to work.

    Imagine if the government put a halt to all independent exploration. What sort of world would that be? Forget the dream of independent seastead governments, adrift in international waters. Forget private enterprise reaching for the stars.

    Mind you, I am all for taxpayer-funded exploration of the seas. However, given public burn-out regarding wanton spending of stimulus dollars, coupled with the near-death blows dealt to NASA’s budget, I don’t see it happening for awhile.

  7. Good on him for putting up the money, getting the machine built and taking it down himself. Remember the footage shot has great potential commercial value … you’ll get to see it Avatar2 ;-)

    I’m with Aeolius (above) regarding taxpayer funded science and the proclivity of funding agencies to want near-immediate commerciality when considering funding a project … I don’t see it happening for a while.

  8. Dour don’t get me wrong, it is a travesty that we’re spending trillions blowing up third world tribal hut dwellers in the effort to bring Democracy to them, while NOT spending money on what we should be like deep submersibles and the expansive scientific teams that could go with them.

    The irony that a filmmaker who made his money on futuristic films featuring a scientific and humanistic dystopia, is now in a better position to explore the oceans is not lost on me.

    Cool though it is, it is also wrong on so many levels.

  9. Hi- Dour, great comments, these are tough points to make and make them sound reasonable (not commenting either way on what I agree). However, to build on what you said: it’s worth pointing out that while Cameron’s expenditure may run in the tens of millions here, as you said this is only ONE year’s budget for previous levels of sub-based undersea research. It is also less than a rounding error for the overall US budget. Let’s not get carried away that the 1% could fund the shortfall in public funding were the latter to get cut even more. Cameron, by the way, is also not among the Forbes 400 if I’m not mistaken. His expenditures also are by no means the pinnacle of what private funding could achieve. Basically, instead of plowing that money into a yacht, and then having not even close to the biggest yacht at Cannes, Cameron made himself a submarine. I think that’s great.

    More power to him, and I hope more wealthy follow in his footsteps, as he followed in the footsteps of others, perhaps less headline-making but just as impactful, such as the Agouron Institute, which has really fostered the growth of an entire scientific discipline. (I can think of a couple areas offhand that could benefit transformatively from a large endowment from some Wall St titan, such as the paleontology and paleobiology of the late Pleistocene).

    Bottom line, there may be different metrics for measuring impact on science, as other commenters have pointed out. The media is wont to hold up Sputnik and Apollo as pivotal moments in the trajectory of American science in terms of public support and inspiration, and that might not be wrong. Private funding may be uniquely suited to funding splashy, fun expeditions that may be of little direct scientific value but which capture the public’s imagination and garner support for the scientific enterprise. We should not lose sight of the fact that Cameron’s expedition doesn’t replace publically funded research even if an appreciable fraction of billionaires started doing science (um, anyone want to pony up 160 billion for another shuttle program?), but we should not allow that to prevent due attention and credit to the role that private basic research can play. Don’t make the mistake you warn against by holding private research up to the same standards of public research in this regard, perhaps?
    Finally, if Mr Cameron reads this blog, I hope he doesn’t get pissed off about people telling him what to do with his project and money, cause that’s not the point.

  10. Twenty four hours. What the heck are you talking about?

    He used research others have done in order to get that submarine. He isn’t a scientist. He isn’t an engineer. He paid for others to create these things for him to use, and basically sat there while other people did the work. If these things that he “discovered” belong to anyone, it’s them.

  11. I don’t understand why he can’t just fund the researchers that already exist and need funding.

  12. I think it’s good to think critically about things like this, and I think the blog post basically shows that what Cameron is doing is pretty awesome, but huge problems that have nothing to do with Cameron still exist. Responding to the points made:

    1. As a private endeavor, it can be judged on it’s own merits, but there’s no prerogative for Cameron to take mission input from others. It would be like complaining that hobbyist astronomers don’t scan the sky systematically or release their results.

    2. The publicity is his, too. He generated it. It’s not his fault if the NOAA has failed to generate public interest in their work, and it’s up to them to leverage Cameron’s publicity to generate interest in publicly funded work. He’s given them a great opportunity to piggy-back on the general public interest.

    3. Cameron isn’t in any way responsible for a lack of funding for ocean science. The submarine he paid for would not exist if he didn’t build it, and it doesn’t come at the expense of funding for science.

    I do think that there is some risk that Cameron’s work could be used to imply that we don’t need public funding for deep water exploration. Fighting that perception is the job of everyone interested in ocean science. Although I think privatization of public endeavors and institutions (schools, prisons, roads, municipal utilities, etc.) is usually bad, that’s not what’s going on here. Cameron is really an enthusiastic hobbyist, like the backyard astronomer, avid birdwatcher or insect photographer that is pursuing his hobby on a scale that is unusually grand.


  13. Easy answer, there… he’s rich, he’s eclectic, and what’s the fun in watching others do things, if you can do it yourself? The man had to know the risks. I applaud his bravery. And, in theory, he paid a boatload of cash for his sub and the R&D involved in its development. Those funds will trickle down to the researchers responsible for the sub.

    Heck, if I had near-unlimited funding and had the choice of paying other to design and live on a seastead, versus paying others to design a seastead I could live on myself, guess which one I would choose?

  14. It isn’t about doing awesome things yourself. It’s about providing people who know how to do these things with the money so they can do them.

  15. I just watched James Cameron’s Ted talk last night again(it really good). This is a man who absolutely loves science fiction, the ocean, and storytelling. Listen to his talk and you can feel how pumped up he is. He came up making films that told stories that he wanted to share with us. I’ve never thought that he was a genius storyteller, but he does his best and I can compare it too an old relative that you sit and listen to at holiday’s. Its not shakesspeare but the passion and love of tellng you a story is soo evidently present.

    On that note what stories has he given us(the world)

    Terminator 2
    The Abyss
    True Lies

    I love movies and James Cameron has made some of my most loved movies.

    Avatar wasn’t screenplay orgasm, but it was, a 100% nerdgasm of “Film Immersion”. I will never forget walking out of the theater opening night, with this feeling of how crappy the parking lot of reality was and wanting to back to Pandora.

    So James Cameron becomes “King of the world” and wealthy. Good for him, He deserves it and I could never hate on him making money. So what does he do with his money? He has fun with his other passion. The ocean. Do we benefit. Yes. I know that I am not the only one that has been following the deepsea challenger dive since I first heard about it. This will no doubt get lots of little kids just as pumped as him to learn more about the ocean and science. On just that one thing – Thank you Jim, you have done the world a great service.

    His record setting dive for “deepest solo dive” did have its hiccups. There were some malfucnctions and so he wasn’t able to do as much or collect as many samples as he would have liked. There will be more dives. And he will bring back the goods. Or die trying.

    Thats another thing. Imagine if would have died? This guy has balls of Unobtanium. I would have been deeply sad if he would not have survived. So dammit James, be careful…I want to see Avatar 2 and 3.

    People this guy is not going to hoard the science for himself which we will benefit from. And even if he did, thats his choice and that wouldn’t be a dick move at all. Its his money. He hasnt been promoting this, he is not trying to make money off it.

    Yea he knows he is a badass…because he is. He has an ego, but I like the guys personality, watching interviews with him is always entertaining because he loves what he does and he knows he’s full of awesome.

    So, I think maybe we are being too critical of this. Kudos to James Cameron for just being him and good luck on future dives.


  16. We should be kissing this guy on the lips for attempting to make our research accessible and relevant to the tax payers who ultimately fund it. He’s “marketing” deep sea research, engineering, and general science to a public that has lost interest and is content with resting on our nations scientific laurels. Cameron is about as bad for us as Neil DeGrasse Tyson is for the NASA budget!
    Look up Dude!

  17. I think you’re missing a fairly big point here, and that is exploratory science doesn’t have any real commercial value unless secondary patentable discoveries are made on the back of it.

    That fact pushes these into government funded projects or philanthropic endeavours as private funding is hard to source as it is generally a money sink.

    James Cameron is forging a way for this to be a commercial prospect while still building scientific foundations, increasing knowledge and enabling future explorers to benefit from the engineering.

    He did it once with Titanic, he used his own funds and sense of curiosity to push engineering boundaries, to then use that footage to make money before releasing it to the world. Yes it was the engineers that “created it”, but he “designed it” making the empowering the engineers to make it smaller, faster, more reliable. Better.

    Titanic can be visited quite easily now, probably for a 100th the cost that he spent himself, only recently super hi-res images from Titanic were released, and those would not have been possible without him “commercialising” the exploration first.

    This is no different in my eyes, he is pushing boundaries for his own requirements, and he can, because its his money and he wants a platform he can use himself to get his footage that no one else in the world has.

    Or, if you prefer to ignore my argument, how about you all go pound on the doors of NASA, Boeing & Lockheed too, especially Boeing & Lockheed, becuase they make billions a year based on technologies and patents that the US government paid for over the last 50 years. I dont see them making fast descending, mobile scientific platforms that can operate at 10km down with hi-res 3D cameras.

  18. actually MW, Cameron is on the NASA advisory board and because of him they installed 3d cameras on the new rover that is on its way to mars as we speak.

  19. Well, in this case, it is about doing awesome things yourself. I think pretty much everyone understands that there would be some additional scientific value in sending down a specialist. The reality is, if Cameron weren’t motivated by his own desire to be down there himself, this wouldn’t have happened. One could make the argument that if Cameron just donated the money to NOAA, it could have produced much more scientific knowledge being parceled out to a wide variety of research projects, but that’s not really relevant. By that argument, anyone who bought a megayacht should have invested in ocean science instead, or anyone with any money for that matter.

    It’s also worth noting that without Cameron there would have been much less publicity and awareness of the project amongst the general public and probably no corporate sponsorship (i.e., less overall investment in the project). Also, on a practical level, even if he isn’t the most qualified person, he has spent a lot of time on submersibles. I don’t think he’s a particularly bad choice of person for this mission. I would think it is better to send someone with practical experience in submersibles than someone without that experience who has better scientific credentials.

  20. Take your pick it’s all there on the video feeds of the unmanned,fully weaponised, aerial drones we have flying about the planet right now.

  21. The Challenger belongs to James Cameron and no one else. He payed the Scientists and Engineers for their time, and for the resources required to develop the vessel. So frankly, what he does with the results of the dive are not up to you, or them, but him. And I’m sure he will use them to contribute back to science.

    Not that he has to.

    No one else is paying to go 7m down to the bottom of the ocean.

    This article is purely criticism for the sake of criticism.

  22. Yep, your an ass.

    You pay, it’s your mud. Cameron paid, so it’s his mud.

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