Science magazine reports on the declining state of the US marine research fleet:
“Fewer scientists are going to sea as a result of a shrinking science fleet, flat budgets, and skyrocketing costs. At the same time, oceanographers are using a growing array of high-tech devices—such as satellites, gliders, and vast networks of sensors tethered to the sea floor—to remotely collect more data than ever before without getting wet.”
The article looks in depth at the state of the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS) fleet, operated by a consortium of 62 universities and government laboratories including Oregon State University, and finds its vessels aging, being retired and not being replaced.
In January, the National Science Foundation named OSU the lead institution on a project to finalize the design and coordinate the construction of as many as three new coastal research vessels to bolster the marine science research capabilities of the United States.
OSU is slated to receive nearly $3 million to coordinate the design phase of the project – but actual construction of the new ships depends on Congress appropriating funds to build them, at a cost estimated at $290 million over 10 years. The final number constructed, and the geographic positioning of these vessels, will be determined by the National Science Foundation based on geographic scientific requirements and availability of funding.
The Science article, meanwhile, notes that some existing research vessels are spending more time in port, as rising operation costs and funding cutbacks make it difficult for scientists to pay for the at-sea time they need. At the same time, technological advances are providing new tools that allow researchers like OSU’s Kipp Shearman – cited in the article for his pioneering use of remotely controlled robotic “gliders” to gather data that once would have required them to spend weeks at sea.