The year 2013 revealed a stark contrast between public and private support for oceanography. Early in the year, WHOI was fortunate and heartened to reinforce ties with three philanthropists of enormous accomplishment. At the end of the year, however, we responded to a survey request from the National Science Foundation, our principal federal funding agency, to help identify ocean science priorities for the next decade with an eye to “investments achievable at the current funding level”—a disheartening caveat in light of the downward slide in federal support for R&D over the past decade.
Four visionaries who gave a huge boost to WHOI research in 2013 were investor Ray Dalio, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt and his wife, president of the Schmidt Family Foundation, Wendy Schmidt, and explorer and film producer and director James Cameron.
Ray Dalio purchased the ship Aluciaafter WHOI leased it to conduct our successful search for Air France 447 in the southern Atlantic in 2010 - 2011. With advisory help from WHOI, Ray had Alucia completely renovated and outfitted for science, and then generously made the ship available to our researchers, for projects supported from a dedicated Access to the Sea Fund that he established at the Institution. Several groups of WHOI scientists, engineers, students and postdocs sailed on Alucia in 2013.
In 2009, Eric and Wendy Schmidt formed the Schmidt Ocean Institute (SOI) and purchased and repurposed another large ship exclusively for ocean science. The 272-foot long R/V Falkor offers yet another option for researchers who often wait years to schedule an expedition aboard an academic fleet ship. In 2013, a WHOI-led team used Falkor for an exploration of hydrothermal vents on the Mid-Cayman Rise with our hybrid remotely operated vehicle Nereus, the same vehicle that dove to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in 2009. SOI has now committed to funding the design of a successor vehicle to Nereus, one that will be used on Falkor for exploration of the deepest parts of the global ocean.
Someone who has visited the Mariana Trench in person is Jim Cameron, who accomplished that feat in 2012 during a solo dive aboard DEEPSEA CHALLENGER (DSC), a vehicle whose design and construction he led and financed himself. In 2013, Jim gave DSC to WHOI to facilitate the cataloging, publication and transition to other vehicles of the many technological advances integral to DSC. In addition to this unprecedented gift, and as part of his commitment to WHOI and desire to stimulate advances in ocean science and exploration, Jim agreed to help the Institution with public outreach. His first demonstration of that commitment was a joint appearance with me in June before a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. While DSC was on public display on the U.S. Capitol grounds, Jim lent a strong, passionate voice to our effort to highlight the need for federal investment in research.
All of us at WHOI continue to stress that need. Many of our scientists responded individually to the year-end NSF survey about ocean science priorities for the next decade. Responding on behalf of the Institution as a whole, I stressed that ocean science is now at a transformative stage in terms of tools and technologies like those just mentioned. It is counterproductive for budget restraint to stifle scientific opportunity just as new and valuable assets are being deployed in both coastal and deep water. I believe fervently that our nation cannot afford to slacken its traditional investment in R&D. There are countless examples of the high return on that investment in terms of innovation, economic growth, and prosperity.
My gratitude for the vision and commitment of private individuals like Ray, Eric, Wendy, and Jim is unbounded. But their willingness to dedicate their own resources in support of science should inspire, not be expected to replace, the need for public support. My determination to press that point is equally boundless.
Last updated: October 10, 2014