The Federal Case for Oceanography

September 9th, 2016 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Eric Lindstrom

One of the two buoys from the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory used during SPURS-2.

One of the two buoys from the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory used during SPURS-2.

SPURS-2 is basic research seeking to improve our fundamental understanding of the surface salinity of the ocean. How does the salt content of the top layer of the ocean vary, and why? However, the question of today’s blog is: How should such work be supported?

While NASA is the prime investor in SPURS (so we make the most of our salinity measurements from space), significant components are made from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). And much of the oceanographic equipment on the used on the ship has origins in work supported by the Office of Naval Research (ONR). All these government agencies (NASA, NOAA, NSF, and ONR are also known in DC circles as “the 4 Ns”) working together on the ocean – how does that work? Many of the people on the ship are from universities but supported by grants from these federal agencies. Wherever you peek at oceanography, you will find national governments behind the curtain….

If there was any doubt in your mind about whether oceanography should be an enterprise supported by U.S. federal tax dollars, this blog post is for you. I would like to provide you with several compelling lines of reasoning – the federal case for oceanography.

One line of reasoning is that such research is a public good. This, roughly, is something that has a broad group of beneficiaries and few identifiable investors that can make it happen. All taxpayers, together through government, support public goods. There are public goods that we can easily relate to –national defense, weather forecasts, national parks, and interstate highways, just to mention a few–, and I would add oceanography to the list. Understanding how the ocean works has broad benefits in the areas of weather and climate prediction, ecosystem services, national security, transportation, recreation, and public health. There are few individuals or companies that can meet the challenge of fulfilling the need, but the necessity for the public good is great. The federal government is the enterprise to support the needed research. Private industry can certainly build on the knowledge of the ocean, but the generation of knowledge is required first.

Modern global oceanography really grew up out of the war effort in the 1940s. That is when submarine warfare, amphibious landings, and search and rescue led to sizable government investments in understanding the ocean’s physical, chemical, and biological characteristics, including specific like the waves and tides on landing beaches. Of course, navies for centuries have been on the leading edge of oceanographic knowledge generation but it was the continuation of the work after the war that led to the civilian oceanography community we have today in the United States. The U.S. Office of Naval Research was important in setting up the Ocean Sciences section at the National Science Foundation. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration  formed in 1970 to consolidate weather, coastal, and fisheries services that have a far deeper history in government. NASA formed in 1958 to organize space technologies that would later gain favor in viewing the ocean from low Earth orbit.

James Watkins, a former Chief of Naval Operations and Secretary of the Department of Energy, was an articulate advocate of the case for oceanography having a significant role in winning the Cold War. He thought the US supremacy of the seas certainly had been critical in victory.

Another line of reasoning and a corollary to oceanography being a public good is the advent if the Law of the Sea in 1982. This legislation extended the reach of sovereign nations well out into the sea by declaration of 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zones. Governments, almost overnight, had new territory (beyond prior 12 nautical mile political boundaries) with marine resources to explore, characterize, and manage. Many countries responded to this challenge with comparable expansions in marine research and capabilities such as new research vessels and ocean surveillance.

If the Law of the Sea compelled oceanography through national self-interest, international cooperation is also compelling the federal case for oceanography. The fact that the ocean occupies 71 percent of the Earth surface suggests the need for many nations to work together to understand the whole of the ocean. In fact, that is the case. The 4 N’s are central to a number of joint international accomplishments in recent decades. The World Ocean Circulation Experiment, the Joint Global Ocean Flux Study, and the World Climate Research Program have deepened our knowledge of the ocean through the collaborative work of these US agencies working with international partners. There is strong coordination internationally through the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission and its sponsorship of the Global Ocean Observing System. SPURS-2, as with many other expeditions focusing on ocean processes, is led by one national agency (in this case NASA) with contributions from the others. Audrey Hasson is aboard R/V Revelle from the French space agency CNES. NASA works closely with many international space agencies on the view of the ocean from space. NOAA collaborates with many international partners on the in situ ocean monitoring networks of the Global Ocean Observing System.

There you have my quick summary of the federal case for oceanography – public good, Law of the Sea, and international collaboration – all compel a strong federal government role in ocean research and observation.

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