Susan K. Avery, PhD

Research Independence & Integrity

The article "Woods Hole allies with energy firms," printed in the Boston Globe (May 25) correctly illustrates the impacts of declining federal investment in ocean research. However, the article also puts forth a wholly incorrect perception: that financial stress could force the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) to compromise its intellectual independence, be co-opted by private interests, and "become a new tool for oil firms." That is absolutely not the case.

WHOI is an independent, nonprofit institution that has relied heavily on competitively awarded research grants and contracts through federal science agencies. Approximately 80 percent of our budget comes from agencies such as the National Science Foundation, Office of Naval Research, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; just under 20 percent comes from foundations and philanthropic sources; less than 1 percent comes from corporate sponsors. Major declines in federal investment in research have required WHOI to cut costs over the past five years and seek more diversified funding sources. However, we will not compromise our core value: the independence of our research.

While we seek new sources of support, our fundamental methods and practices will not change. We strive to advance our knowledge about the complex workings of the ocean and to develop new tools to support our scientific inquiries. Individual scientists pursue investigations guided by their individual interests and expertise. Projects mutually developed with all sponsors, whether government, philanthropic, or corporate, must meet WHOI’s goals and values. They must align directly with WHOI scientists' own scientific interests and have high quality and integrity. With the rare exception of classified work for the U.S. government, we submit publication results to peer review.  None of our scientific publications resulting from the research are censored. WHOI retains intellectual property resulting from the research.

Corporate sponsorship of academic research is not new; industry and universities have been collaborating on research projects for a century or more. One major example is MIT, where corporate funding comprises 19 percent of total sponsored research. Corporate funding of research has been successful in many other academic institutions, and there are well-established approaches for assuring the independence of the institutions. We carefully and deliberately consider each specific potential collaboration and we have turned down significant funding when we could not agree with potential sponsors on the issues outlined above.

WHOI is a national and international asset whose scientists have made transformative discoveries that have benefited society. Our independence has been well established throughout our history and more recently by our work on the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the successful search for Air France 447, and the ongoing assessment of impacts in the ocean from the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster. These examples illustrate the importance of a having an independent institution with a strong research base pre-adapted to solving unanticipated problems and with the technology, teamwork, and operational expertise in the ocean to put science into action.

During the Deepwater Horizon crisis, our scientists and engineers helped determine the flow rate of the oil and gas from the well, collected the only sample directly from the deep-sea wellhead, mapped the underwater plume of hydrocarbons, measured minute quantities of the dispersant used, provided subsurface ocean circulation information for predictive models, and assessed biological impacts on deep-sea habitats.

The Air France search, at the request of Airbus and French aviation authorities, secured information  invaluable in determining the cause of the crash, will help improve air travel safety, and also provided a testing ground for robotic surveys of rugged, unexplored seafloor.

Our research on Fukushima has delivered critical information on the circulation and transport of radionuclides in the ocean, which is essential in assessing their uptake by marine life. WHOI scientists provided key independent information—which neither governments nor industry could or would—for a worried and skeptical public.

The Globe article also incorrectly concludes that our research collaborations with industries will be geared to "helping oil and gas companies identify new sources of the very fossil fuels believed to be damaging the environment," and thus compromises our research on climate. Climate research tells us that human society should wean itself quickly from fossil fuels. But the hard fact is that our society still relies on oil, and oil companies are looking for it in ever-deeper and more remote waters where they have limited experience. Many of our proposals with energy companies—part of WHOI’s newly formed Center for Marine Robotics—focus on basic geological, hydrographic, and biological research on "cold seeps," where chemicals seep naturally from the seafloor and sustain ecosystems; environmental monitoring and research; and improved autonomous underwater vehicle operations, including response scenarios for oil spills.

Our research, as always, will continue to advance science and generate knowledge of the least understood component of our planetary system, the ocean, and we will make this knowledge available to all. As scientists, it is our job to provide the best possible, unbiased information to support decisions on societal matters, including energy resources of all types, fisheries, water resources, environmental quality, coastal management, disaster mitigation, national security, and climate adaptation. Ultimately, what we do to address these issues will foster the wise stewardship and use of the ocean and of the planet.

Originally published: May 29, 2014