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WHOI Waypoints: Federal Funding for Ocean Science Remains Tight

Oceanographers are struggling to find light at the end of the funding tunnel, as federal spending on ocean science remained relatively flat in 2004 and is expected to just keep pace with inflation in 2005. WHOI is heavily reliant on federal funding to conduct ocean research.

The 2004 budget for the National Science Foundation (NSF) rose 5 percent, to $5.6 billion, but funding for the ocean science and earth science directorates grew by 3 percent, just ahead of the national inflation rate. WHOI receives about 40 percent of its science and facility funding through grants and contracts written by Institution investigators to NSF.

The Bush Administration’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2005 (which begins in October 2004) includes a number of increases and decreases that would affect WHOI. The overall funding request for NSF was raised to $5.75 billion, an increase of
3 percent over the 2004 level. However, increases in the agency’s ocean sciences and earth sciences programs stand at roughly 2 percent, just below the national inflation rate.

Funding for several major ocean science initiatives—including the International Ocean Drilling Program (IODP), the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI), and the Oceanographic Fleet Renewal—has been repeatedly postponed over the past few years. So it was a pleasant surprise when the President requested $40 million in 2005 for IODP, which seeks to understand the fundamental mechanics and history of the seafloor. (The current drill ship, Resolution, will be replaced or refitted with more modern equipment.) The President’s 2005 budget request also suggested that OOI could be funded next year.

This good news is tempered by proposed cuts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which funds 8 to 10 percent of WHOI science. Budgets for peer-reviewed research outside federal labs would be reduced by 30 percent, and programs in harmful algal blooms, ecosystem science, and climate change would be substantially reduced.

Similarly, funding from the U.S. Navy—which typically supplies about 20 percent of WHOI’s science and facility income—continues to drop. While the overall Department of Defense budget is expected to grow by $20 billion in 2005, funding for science and technology will drop by 15 percent—more than 20 percent in naval research related to oceanography.

In a review of the President’s 2005 budget request, the Science Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives called proposed funding for basic research “insufficient,” noting that while spending on defense and medical research is booming, most federal science programs are barely keeping pace with inflation.

“We must not overlook the fact that scientific research and development underpins our economic and national security,” said Representative Vernon Ehlers (R-Michigan), a member of the Science Committee. “Scientific research and development...is an investment that promises, and has historically delivered, significant returns.”

For several years, Congress has been working to double the budget for NSF, hailing it as an investment in economic competitiveness. In fact, Congress passed legislation in 2002 to increase funding for NSF from $4.8 billion in 2002 to $9.8 billion by 2007. But a lack of support from the Executive Branch has kept NSF appropriations from increasing substantially.

“We should be honest with ourselves: outside the scientific community, there is no hue and cry for more government funding of R&D,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota). “It’s unlikely that the science gap growing between the United States and other developed nations will become a major issue in the upcoming presidential campaign.”

“We have not done enough to show the American people the connection between the work underway in your laboratories and the problems that affect their lives,” Daschle added. “This must change. When rumors of a Nazi bomb program reached President Roosevelt, he said simply, ‘Whatever the enemy may be planning, American science will be equal to the challenge.’ Will future presidents be able to speak with such confidence?”

Originally published: July 1, 2004