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Spring/Summer 2015 Vol. 15 Number 1

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Sea Change

Setting the Course for the Next Decade of Ocean Science Research

©Stephan Kerkhofs/Hemera/Thinkstock

The National Science Foundation is the primary funder of basic ocean science research, spanning physical, chemical, and biological oceanography and marine geology and geophysics. In addition to research that advances understanding of the ocean, NSF supports the ocean research infrastructure, such as the academic research fleet, scientific ocean drilling, and the Ocean Observatories Initiative.

As new technologies and capabilities transform the ability of scientists to study the complex and dynamic ocean system, NSF asked the Academies to establish research priorities for the next decade and identify strategic investments that are necessary to achieve those goals.

The study committee solicited input from the broader ocean sciences community and, after sorting topics into high-level scientific questions, applied four criteria to determine the top research priorities: transformative research potential, societal impact, readiness, and partnership potential.

The process yielded eight priorities representing integrative research areas, including rate and impacts of sea-level rise, effects of climate change on marine ecosystems, greater understanding of marine food webs, better approaches for forecasting hazards such as mega-earthquakes and tsunamis, and exploration of the subseafloor environment. Because each of the priority areas crosses disciplines, the report emphasizes that it is important that investigators do not encounter barriers to obtaining funding for interdisciplinary research.

The report found that the fleet of academic research vessels was most closely aligned with the new priorities and was critical to effectively address the decadal priorities. Scientific ocean drilling facilities were critical for addressing some of the priorities, and the Ocean Observatories Initiative, which has yet to become fully operational, was less aligned with the priorities. Together, this infrastructure accounts for more than 50 percent of the total budget for ocean sciences within NSF, and the operation and maintenance costs continue to rise.

In the face of flat or declining budgets, growing infrastructure costs mean less money for core research and investigator support. The report says that the Division of Ocean Sciences at NSF should initiate an immediate 10 percent reduction in major infrastructure costs in the next fiscal year, followed by an additional 10 percent to 20 percent decrease over the next five years. These cost savings should be applied directly to strengthening core science programs, investing in technology development, and funding partnerships to address the decadal science priorities.

-- Lauren Rugani

Sea Change: 2015-2025 Decadal Survey of Ocean Sciences. Committee on Guidance for NSF on National Ocean Science Research Priorities: Decadal Survey of Ocean Sciences, Ocean Studies Board, Division on Earth and Life Studies (2015, 98 pp.; ISBN 978-0-309-36688-5; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $44.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The committee was co-chaired by Shirley Pomponi, executive director of the NOAA Cooperative Institute for Ocean Exploration, Research, and Technology at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute-Florida Atlantic University, and David W. Titley, director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Pennsylvania State University. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation.

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