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Convergence Accelerator could help to meet “An Ocean of Need”

Innovative NSF program aims to address major ocean-related societal issues

By Randy Showstack | November 19, 2020

WHOI President and Director Peter de Menocal ()
WHOI President and Director Peter de Menocal. (Photo by Eileen Barroso, Columbia University)

Huge societal challenges related to the oceans require innovative thinking, and a new National Science Foundation (NSF) program, called the Convergence Accelerator, is a promising initiative to help confront these challenges, said Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution President and Director Peter de Menocal at the Smart Oceans 2020 conference in October.

Among the most significant ocean-related challenges are climate and weather, food security, renewable energy, and ecosystem health, de Menocal said during his plenary talk at the NSF-sponsored conference.

The Convergence Accelerator program hopes to speed the transition of research into practice to address challenges of national importance, according to Lara Campbell, NSF’s program coordinator for the program, who also spoke at the conference. The program encourages a use-inspired and convergence approach to research that brings together people from various disciplines and various sectors, such as not-for-profits, academia, industry, and government. NSF’s goal in supporting the workshop was to “refine and develop a topic for a future Convergence Accelerator track” that can hasten convergence research between academia, industry, government agencies, foundations, and others, she said.

De Menocal called the Convergence Accelerator one of the most exciting initiatives at NSF.

“During my career, the planet and the oceans have changed so much, they’ve moved so rapidly away from their historical, even geological, baselines that the need for actionable solutions is urgent,” he says. “The prior model of federal funding of curiosity-driven science alone is being increasingly challenged to produce the knowledge that we need on the timescale that we need.” He said that an NSF document requesting information from ocean community stakeholders about the Convergence Accelerator lays out the need for a shorter timeline for results and for an innovative and transdisciplinary research approach.

“We need to transform ocean and climate science to produce the kind of knowledge we need,” de Menocal said, highlighting one key challenge. “We’re hard up against a very robust physical deadline—we have less than 5-10 years to bend the curve on global emissions so that we’re actually not increasing year over year emissions. Once we accomplish that, we have something like less than two decades to have COVID-style emissions reductions,” he said, referring to reductions similar to those during the pandemic, “year over year to limit future warming below the 1.5-2-degree centigrade threshold that we’ve been defining for the past several decades as the upper limit on planetary temperatures.”

“Curiosity-driven science alone simply won’t do it,” he adds. “Curiosity-driven science leads us into many interesting places. And we need to focus on the kinds of transformative knowledge that turn this basic science into something that is actionable by the public or private sector.”

De Menocal said that WHOI is rooted in curiosity-driven and fundamental science, and that it always will be. He said, however, that WHOI is inviting its scientists to pursue their basic research while also “applying their skills to weighing in on really fundamental questions facing society.”

During his plenary, de Menocal presented some examples of research at WHOI that integrates science, engineering, and solutions. Among the examples is the Image Flow CytoBot device that collects up to 100,000 images per day of microbial ecosystems; the “Curious Robot” that brings machine learning artificial intelligence and other tools to bear to study coral reef health; and an acoustic telescope that listens to the deep ocean.

The Convergence Accelerator “is tailor-made for the geosciences and ocean sciences in particular,” adds Richard Murray, WHOI deputy director and vice president for research.

“Without convergence, you’re not going to get very far in ocean research,” says Murray, who served as director of NSF’s Division of Ocean Sciences from 2015 to 2018. Virtually everything you study in the ocean involves three or four of the core sciences of physics, chemistry, geology, and biology, plus technology, he notes.

Convergence Accelerator funding could allow more scientists, engineers, and technicians “to take creative risks and to really push the envelope, and have the financial backing” for their work, he says.

"[It's] not just more brochure-speak," adds Murray. "It’s not just the same old stuff repackaged. It’s a part of a different way of thinking about things. The accelerator itself gives us the opportunity to jump in with both feet.”

The Convergence Accelerator “is just the perfect match for anything oceans, because to really understand anything to do with the oceans requires the convergence of disciplines and it requires an accelerated investment,” says de Menocal. “There’s an ocean of need out there.”