Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Letter from James R. Luyten, Executive Vice President and Director of Research
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Jim Luyten, left, chats with Corporation Member Ted Dengler. (Photo by Elas Ruiz)

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Highlighted areas denote locations of selected polar projects by WHOI investigators. Rindy Ostermann is working north of Iceland; Andrey Proshutinsky, Al Plueddemann, and John Toole in the Beaufort Sea; Carin Ashjian and Bob Pickart in the Bering Strait and Chukchi Sea. Peter Winsor and Breck Owens are deploying fl oats across the Arctic Ocean. Several projects are also pending or underway in Antarctica.

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The National Science Foundation is the largest supporter of WHOI science, with most NSF funds coming from proposals submitted to the Division of Ocean Sciences (OCE). The NSF funding rate—the number of projects funded vs. proposals submitted—is declining as demand for NSF support has outpaced the agency’s budget increases.
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» WHOI Arctic Group

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» Woods Hole Center for Oceans and Human Health

Shrinking federal investments in basic research will make the coming years challenging for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Despite this out look, the Institution’s research and engineering achievements continue. We are prepared for rough waters in the short term, and are preparing for a new way of funding basic research in the long term.

By the end of 2004, we had approximately $120 million in hand for funding of 865 research projects. Continuing the trend over the last few years, our Biology Department and Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering Department show most rapid growth in personnel and in the number and size of sponsored research projects. Our scientists made significant advances in earthquake research, involving the application of mathematical models to the extensive databases for earthquakes on the East Pacific Rise, leading to a better understanding of early release of stress that may ultimately provide some predictive capability. Jeff McGuire, graduate student Margaret Boettcher, and colleagues have led this effort. Jian Lin, with Uri ten Brink of the U.S. Geological Survey, reported their work on assessing the potential for tsunami-generating earthquakes in the Caribbean in December.

The sensitivity of the polar seas to global changes in climate has led to a large, and growing, research effort to understand the complex relations that control marine life, as well as the processes that control the balance between fresh and salty water—which in turn influences earth’s climate. We have more than 40 funded projects scheduled for the Arctic and Antarctic, involving more than 30 investigators from a wide range of disciplines, including biologists Carin Ashjian, Peter Wiebe, Scott Gallager; physical oceanographers Andrey Proshutinsky, Bob Pickart, Fiamma Straneo, Al Plueddemann, and John Toole, geologist Rob Reves-Sohn, and engineering scientist Hanu Singh. Some of the polar areas of interest to these scientists are highlighted in the map (right). We expect to play a significant role in International Polar Year, a coordinated effort starting in 2007 to focus on leading polar science questions.

The prospect of making observations from autonomous platforms has been a dream for oceanographers for decades. This dream is finally becoming realized. An autonomous transect of the Gulf Stream south of New England was accomplished this year by Breck Owens and Scripps collaborators, using the Spray glider. In addition, Dave Fratantoni participated with the Naval Oceanographic Office in a field program in the Phillipine Sea with five Slocum gliders to test the concept of using a mobile array of gliders as synthetic moorings, using the measurements to initialize and then validate numerical models. Christopher von Alt and colleagues in the Oceanographic Systems Laboratory delivered to the Navy a second autonomous underwater vehicle rated for depths to 6,000 meters. The vehicle successfully conducted more than 5,000 nautical miles of deep ocean surveys for the Naval Oceanographic Office.

Also started in 2004 was the work of Dennis McGillicuddy’s group and colleagues in many institutions on biological-physical interactions in the Sargasso Sea to better understand the effect on biological productivity of ocean eddies, which are hundreds of kilometers across. The eddies, sometimes referred to as the “internal weather of the sea,” are highly energetic and ubiquitous features of ocean circulation. They perturb the chemical and biological environment that can dramatically impact biogeochemical cycling in the ocean.

Following a recommendation made in 2004 by the “Access to the Sea” task force, an internal fund has been established to foster the development of state-of-the-art sea-going technologies and support high-risk or innovative sea-going research. The first projects are due for selection in 2005.

Near-term prospects
Much of our existing funding is for ongoing projects, which have been funded in the past few years for three to five years. In addition, there are significant new projects. Some of these include the Clivar Mode Water Dynamics experiment (CLIMODE), a large, multi-institutional observational program to understand the formation and maintenance of large bodies of water adjacent to strong currents (such as the Sargasso Sea, along the south side of the Gulf Stream) and their role in climate. Andrey Proshutinsky is leading a group of investigators working in the Beaufort Gyre, off the Alaska north coast, to understand its role in the balance of fresh and salty water, and its influence on global heat distribution.

As part of an international effort called VERTIGO (VERtical Transport In the Global Ocean), WHOI scientists and technicians Ken Buesseler, Jim Valdes, Tom Trull, Karen Casciotti, Ben Van Mooy, and Steve Manganini are studying processes that control the sinking of particles from the ocean surface to depths of 1,000 meters. This work will enhance modeling of the global carbon budget and understanding of the role of carbon in the global climate.

Biology is thriving because its funding base is highly diverse, and because it has become an international scientific focus driven by extraordinary developments in genomics, proteomics, and in the oceans in particular because of the observational capabilities developed in the past 10 years. The Woods Hole Center for Oceans and Human Health, one of four in the country, exemplifies the application of modern understanding in biology to addressing issues of immediate human interest.

The longer view
Despite the decrease in National Science Foundation (NSF) funds overall for 2005, the Foundation will still spend more than $300 million in basic research in ocean science per year. Our scientists and engineers are very competitive (figure at right) and we anticipate that we will continue to participate substantially in the major oceanographic initiatives in the coming decade. We also expect to continue to receive substantial funding for individual investigators and major facilities, such as the accelerator mass spectrometer, ships, and submersibles. We continue to attract highly qualified candidates for new scientific and technical positions.

In addition, advances in instrumentation and technology make possible measurements and understanding that was previously beyond our reach. This advancement is moving faster than the required increase in funding. To fully harness these emerging capabilities, we will require a more diverse funding base. Roughly eighty percent of the federal funding we need will still come from traditional sources, such as NSF, the Office of Naval Research, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Institutes of Health. The remainder will need to come from new sources.

Escalating competition for federal research funds is contributing to growing risk aversion in basic science funding. As a result, private funding—which underwrites 20% of WHOI science today—will become increasingly important to demonstrate success and smooth the way for subsequent federal support. This is already happening within our Ocean Institutes and other internal programs.

In the larger picture, not only is funding for basic research continuing to decline at most federal agencies, the character of the funding is changing. There is more focus on applied problems. Unlike the funding for basic research, this money comes with more strings attached, more rigid timelines, and firmer expectations of results. To participate in this world, our scientists’ way of working will need to change to accommodate the different requirements of the funding agencies. Some of our scientists and engineers have been successful at navigating in this world. We are exploring ways, within the Institution’s culture, to create an environment that enables more scientists and engineers to take advantage of these opportunities.

James R. Luyten
Executive Vice President and Director of Research

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