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.
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
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.