Letter from James R. Luyten, Executive Vice President and Director of Research
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Jim Luyten, right, with (from left) Henrick Schmidt of MIT and Brian Rothschild of the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, at a Congressional briefing on marine sciences and technology development opportunities. (D. Confar/PhotoGraphics Dept., UMass Dartmouth Library)
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The funding system for basic science in this country has become so delicately balanced that a decline in real federal dollars of a few percentage points translates into a large change in the state of mind of our investigators. This is the condition we faced in 2005 and expect to continue for the foreseeable future.

While the Institution’s share of federal dollars for ocean science remains stable around 15 percent (which it has been for years), more scientists are competing for a shrinking pie. As a result, investigators that had a funding success rate of three in eight proposals in 2000 are now seeing a success rate of one in eight or lower. Bridge support—institutional funding designed to “bridge” scientists across periods between grants—has risen from $1 million in 2000 to $4 million in 2005. We expect it to reach $6 million in 2006.

For scientists who, for the first time in their careers, are having to take bridge support, it is little consolation that the bridge support problem represents only five percent of our operating budget, and that we already have commitments of more than $100 million from federal agencies for 2006. They rightly see their pain growing in subsequent years, as the start-up of multi-year projects is pushed farther into the future, where the cost of operations will be higher.

The root cause is a steady devaluation of basic, curiosity-driven science as an investment in the future, and the rising role of applied, market-driven research. Mission agencies, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Office of Naval Research, are shifting their support to focus on their missions. We are addressing the root cause through advocacy for science in Washington and to the public, and wider promotion of the importance of basic science in addressing societal needs and in creating new markets.

We continued our administrative hiring freeze in 2005, and extended it into 2006, as well as freezing administrative promotions until a mid-year review in 2006. Since 2004, we cut 19 administrative staff positions, 14 of those by attrition. Reconfiguring pension and medical benefits led to savings of $5 million in 2005.

Applied oceanography
During the Second World War, the vast majority of our work was defense related, and highly applied—from developing smoke screen methods to protect landing parties, to anti-submarine warfare techniques. Today, a galvanizing force is the globalized economy, forcing more companies to seek differentiation through technology development, which plays to our strengths in research and engineering. The question of applied oceanography versus basic science is not an either/or proposition. To me, they can coexist. The question is how we can increase our applied work while maintaining a critical mass of creativity in basic work.

Intellectual property development
A hallmark of the Institution is the collaboration between scientists and engineers, each pushing the other to further innovation, and broadening the horizon of scientific questions that can be pursued. Cape Cod is sprinkled with small companies incubated at our Institution. In the past, our attitude was that we were not in the business of business. Today, we are seeking ways to encourage our most creative engineers and scientists to stay, yet derive revenue for the Institution from our intellectual property by applying structures and mechanisms found at most major universities. Our task is not to change who we are, but find a way to make this effort work in our independent-minded culture.

We have undertaken change of this scale in the past, and kept the soul of the organization strong. We know that when these efforts run their course, the Institution will look different from the way it does today. Yet, if we do this well, the Institution will be even more innovative and a magnet for those who hunger for scientific excellence.

Copyright ©2006 Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, All Rights Reserved.

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