Who Pays for Ocean Research?

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Entrance to the Outer Bay Exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Funding is the root of all evil, as far as scientists are concerned. It's a loathsome task and takes scientists away from what they were trained to do: make science.

Now there are lots of strong arguments about competitive funding and lots of strong feelings about where public tax dollars should be spent, but I'm not going to debate those topics here. Some people think exploring space or the oceans, for that matter, is a waste of tax dollars. Some think that by spending more money on medical research or social programs that disease and hunger could be wiped out faster. Scientists think that if governments would just give them lots of money and leave them alone then maybe some real science and some fundamental discoveries could be made.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion and everyone has one. That's okay.

What I would like to spend a few paragraphs talking funding for ocean science. I will bite my tongue, as possible, to avoid letting my strong opinions on this subject trickle through. My primary goal in this section is to take you behind the scenes, so to speak, and make you aware of a part of science that is little seen but that occupies the major percentage of a scientist's time.

Three general sources of money exist for scientific research: private (commercial or individual), non-profit or government. Private monies may come from corporations, manufacturers or benevolent individuals. Non-profit groups run the gamut from environmental organizations and advocacy groups to educational organizations. Government funding comes from a variety of agencies, local, state and federal, as we will discover below.

Research itself generally falls into two categories: basic and applied. Basic research aims to discover fundamental knowledge about some natural phenomenon in the Universe. Basic research tends to be highly specific and narrowly focused. Just read a few titles for Ph.D. dissertations and you'll get an idea of what I mean. Applied research strives to discover knowledge that is useful in the human sense. It tends to be more broad-based and focused usually on solving a particular problem or creating a more efficient and/or faster process.

Both types of research are vitally important and one would not be alive without the other. Applied research depends on basic knowledge. Lots of times basic research reveals something scientists never even dreamed of, like Plexiglas, that ends up having incredible practical benefits. On the other hand, basic research depends on applied research to push the limits of our knowledge, to reveal areas where our understanding is imperfect. Basic research also relies on applied research to create a need, to get the public and politicians excited about a particular area of research (although most basic research scientists, including myself, think that's a short-sighted way to look at science...oops, sorry, that was an opinion.) 

When a scientist has an idea (a hypothesis, ideally), how does she or he go about getting money to test it?

In the olden days, a scientist (called explorers in those days) went before a king or queen and begged for money. Scientists, like artists, relied on wealthy benefactors to enable them to practice their craft. Today, it's not so simple.

Funding agencies, private, non-profit and government,  publish what is known as an RFP, a Request for Proposals. Sometimes they are called RFI, Requests for Inquiries, or some other such thing. The point is that when these agencies have money, they announce it. Federal agencies publish RFPs on a regular basis, according to a well-established schedule. Their monies are received as part of the federal budgeting process. The agencies submit a request for a certain amount of money and then Congress bickers about it to decide how much to give each agency. At least, that's how it works in the United States.

RFPs have become a lot more specific in recent decades. It used to be that any well-thought-out proposal with scientific merit had a pretty good chance of being funded. Nowadays, a scientist's proposal has to fall within an umbrella of pre-chosen topics or it doesn't stand a chance of being funded. Global warming, sea level rise, the ozone hole and coastal processes are among the hot topics being funded in oceanography right now. The political reality of funding is such that a scientist who wants to get funding for an idea needs to "couch" his research proposal into something that at least appears to relate to one of those hot topics.

So a scientist writes a proposal according to the guidelines of the RFP and sits back and waits for the money to roll in, right?

Hardly. Another reality of today's funding situation is something called "bootleg research." Just like mountain men brewing up a vat of potent but prohibited moonshine, scientists really need to have brewed a little bit of their research before they submit the proposal. It's sort of an unofficial practice that a proposal needs to have some data before it will be funded. Funding agencies want to know that the proposed experiments will work, even though no one has given the scientist any money to check it out. By hook and crook, scientists do a little research on the side, so to speak, to create a data set that can be used for a future proposal.

Even with all that--a perfectly written proposal, guidelines followed to the letter, preliminary research included--the chances of being funded are dismal. Consider this ball-park statistic: less than 10% of the oceanography proposals submitted to the National Science Foundation, the single largest supporter of ocean science in the United States, are funded. That means that a scientist has a one in ten chance of getting money to support his research.

As a result, ocean scientists spend probably more than half their time writing proposals and seeking funds. It's an unfortunate reality but it's part of the job of being an ocean scientist. Throw in another 25% or more of their time for administration of the proposal and publication of data, and it figures that oceanographers probably spend no more than 25% of their time doing oceanography. That's not a lot of time for science.

For the men and women who dedicate their lives to the pursuit of knowledge about the sea, it's a sad state of affairs. Although money from private and non-profit corporations appears to be on the rise, they cannot support the level of funding that basic oceanographic research requires.

Who's to blame for this rather somber situation? No one, really. The tidal forces of politics, world events and public opinion dictate to a large extent the money earmarked for ocean science research. Those are powerful forces over which no one person has much influence.

But despite what looks like an impossible struggle, ocean science does get accomplished and ocean scientists continue to discover new knowledge about the sea. Scientists perform their craft for love, not for money. They just keep going to bat until they get a hit. In the meantime, they scrape along, borrowing and begging, to keep their science alive.

Assuming a scientist does get that phone call (not from Ed McMahon, unfortunately) that his or her proposal has been funded, how much do they get?

Typical funding amounts run from $30-150,000 for individual proposals and perhaps up to $1,000,000 for multi-PI investigations. (Once scientists get funded, they get to call themselves a PI, which means Principal Investigator.) Funding agencies are particularly fond of multi-PI projects in oceanography because oceanography is such an interdisciplinary science. It spreads the wealth around, usually to several universities and institutions.

But wait, the scientist doesn't get all that money. Some of that money goes to the university or institution in the form of something called overhead. Universities and institutions charge overhead allegedly to pay for building maintenance, paperwork, electricity and things like that. Overhead is usually built into the proposal when it is submitted and it's not cheap. Typical overhead rates may be 50% or more, depending on the prestige of the university or institution. So of the $100K that a funding agency awards, the scientist gets $50K. Oh, and that's for a two- or three-year period.

Obviously, with such short shrift, a scientist can't make it on one funded proposal alone. The working scientists I know typically have two (2) minimum and ideally three (3) projects funded at the same time. This is especially true for scientists on "soft" money, which means that all of their salary comes from the grant (the funded proposal). A soft-money scientist's efforts are truly Herculean when you think of all they go through. It's no wonder that their work is a single-minded, 12-14 hour per day, seven days a week obsession.

Scientists on "hard" money receive all or part of their salary from the university or institution. Of course, "all" means nine (9) months. The other three months must come from a grant. But it's no slacker's job either. These scientists must continue to bring in money (of course, the university gets the overhead) or they risk losing their job, especially if they are non-tenured (meaning their position is not guaranteed). Assistant professors, who are non-tenured, must secure funding for at least five-years, after which they may be granted tenure and promoted to the Associate Professor position. If they are not successful in obtaining outside funding and producing publications at the same time, then it's not likely that they are going to get tenure. Scientists denied for tenure must look for another job.

Salaries aren't the only thing being paid for by a grant. In fact, they may be the least expensive part of a grant. Technicians, lab helpers, work-study students, graduate students, equipment, supplies, travel, dues for scientific meetings and publication costs are just a few of the things that a scientist must budget for in a grant. In oceanography, there is often one more step but, fortunately, this step is a little easier: an oceanographer must apply for ship time.

An organization called UNOLS, or  University National Oceanographic Laboratory System, maintains a fleet of oceanographic research vessels at major universities and institutions around the United States. These ships may range in size from small coastal vessels (in the 60-120 foot range) to blue water vessels (in the 180-300 foot range). Generally, the major oceanographic institutions receive money to provide dock space and maintenance for UNOLS vessels. The R/V Atlantis II at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the R/V Thomas G. Thompson at the University of Washington and the R/V Melville at Scripps Institution of Oceanography are good examples.

Once a scientist is funded for a particular project, she or he puts in a request for a particular time period on a particular ship. Cruises may be as short as a few days or as long as several weeks. The longest cruise in which I participated lasted five (5) weeks aboard the R/V Polar Duke in the Weddell Sea, a part of the Antarctic Ocean. As far as I'm aware, it's not too hard to get ship time, but it may not always be at the time and on the vessel that a scientist desires. But hey, once a scientist has made it that far, who's complaining?

Funding for the UNOLS vessels comes directly out of the federal budget. Anyone who has owned even a small boat can imagine the costs for operating some of these vessels. Ball-park figures for the blue water ships like the Atlantis II, the Thompson and the Melville run around $100,00 per day. Gulp. As a little exercise, figure out how much it costs to operate the Atlantis II at $100K per day for five weeks.

And believe it or not, that's not the most expensive ship. That award goes to the JOIDES Resolution, an ocean-going vessel with a drilling platform for removing cores of oceanic crust at the bottom of the sea. (We'll see why that's important in a later lecture.) This ship is part of the Ocean Drilling Program, or ODP. A friend of mine who recently worked aboard this vessel told me (and I hope I'm not misquoting him) that it can cost half a million dollars a day to run this ship. That's more expensive than Michael Jordan (I think...).

Lest I leave you with the impression that oceanography is a "rich-man's hobby", a reputation it did enjoy before the 20th Century, let me say that not all oceanography requires expensive ships and not all of it requires money even. Anyone who with the curiosity, the drive and the dedication could, conceivably, conduct ocean research without spending a dime (assuming they had a day job to give them a place to live and all that). Never before has that been more true than now. The availability of oceanographic data through the Internet is staggering. Tons of data, some of it possibly never before looked at, are available for download. And I have little doubt that there are little jewels of knowledge hidden among those bits and bytes, waiting to be discovered.

Our own Fullerton College faculty also manage to carry out high-level research on a shoestring budget. Dr. Carolyn Heath, who studies sea lion physiology, takes students to Baja or the Channel Islands every year to conduct investigations. And yours truly participated in an expedition to the Greenland Sea in August 1998, compliments of my dear friend Dr. Francisco Rey at the HavforskningInstitutett, the Institute of Marine Research, in Bergen, Norway.

Opportunities for original research exist on our local beaches. Our field labs are designed, in part, to expose you to the kinds of oceanographic research that can be carried out from the beach. This year will see the launch of Fullerton College's 21-foot research and teaching vessel, the Que Mas?, which, with the recent addition of a natural fluorometer to our college, will allow us to survey local waters and make measurements of ocean properties that can be linked with satellite and ocean buoy data available on the Internet. Pretty exciting, huh?

Hopefully, this little lecture of  mine has exposed you to the "real world" of science. (Watch out, MTV!) It's not something you typically find it textbooks (I guess authors think it's like talking about someone's dirty laundry basket or something like that), but I think it's an important lesson for understanding science as a process. All of the things we've talked about, making an observation, creating a hypothesis, designing experiments, getting funding, carrying out those experiments, analyzing the data, publishing the results, discussing the results and experiencing that thrill of discovering a new piece of knowledge, is what science is all about.

As a final look at oceanography as a science and a first look at learning how to read graphs, take a few moments to study the pie chart below. Most of you should be familiar with the concept of a pie chart: the pie is divided into percentages where the larger chunks represent the larger percentages. If you really don't have a clue how to read a pie chart, don't dismiss it and don't put it off. E-mail me or post a message on the forum ASAP. You will see a pie chart on more than one exam and now's the time to learn how to read them. They are really quite simple.

Okay, here's a breakdown of Total Ocean Science Funding by government agencies in 1997. The total money awarded to Ocean Science in 1997 was $600 Million.

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If the Office of Naval Research (ONR) funded 20% of the Ocean Science Budget in 1997, how much actual dollars did they give to ocean scientists? You should be able to figure this out and again, if you don't know how, contact someone ASAP. Try to figure out the dollar amounts for some of the other agencies.

Next, take a few moments to look at a few of the links to these funding agencies and other agencies (private and non-profit) engaged in ocean science research. You don't need to go deep into the sites. Just get a taste for the language and the look and feel of these sites. Read a couple sentences and explore a little.


National Science Foundation Program Summaries and Budgets


NASA SeaWifs

Ocean Drilling Program

World Data Center System

Ocean Information Center (OCEANIC)

Research Ship Information and Schedules

World Ocean Circulation Experiment

Global Observing Systems (GOSIC)

WWW Virtual Oceanography Library
a selected page, be sure to scroll down

Earth Observing System

Oceanographic and Earth Science Institutions

Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, Catalina Island

Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

Southern California Coastal Water Research Project

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Restoration Project

Sea Urchin Harvester's Association, California

SDSU Cetacean Behavior Laboratory

University National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS)
(Oceanographic Research Vessels)

Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education (CORE)
(A lobby group for the oceans.)

Office of Naval Research (ONR)

Careers in Oceanography

Environmental Protection Agency

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA)

National Centers for Environmental Prediction

Climate Prediction Center

NOAA Operational Significant Event Imagery Server
(Today's hurricanes, floods, fires and other natural dangers.)

National Marine Fisheries Service

National Aeronautics and Space Administration

United States Geological Survey

Mineral Management Services

Department of Energy

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
(yes, they are interested in the oceans, check out the world factbook)

NASA's Earth Science Enterprise

National Sea Grant Program

Oceanographer of the Navy

National Oceanography Strategic Plan

T-AGS 60 Class Naval Oceanographic Ships

OVP Virtual Tours

Consortium for Oceanographic Activities for Students and Teachers

The Jason Project

United States Army Corps of Engineers

United States Coast Guard

United States Global Change Research Program

And that's only a few of them.