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Oceanography in 2025: Proceedings of a Workshop Oceanography in 2028* Mark Abbott† Predicting the future is an interesting, if somewhat futile, exercise, but at the least it can provoke us to think about where we are and where we might be headed. We can (a) project forward our wishful thinking, (b) assume that there will be little or no change in how we operate—or (c) assume that no one will remember our forecasts, so what we say is of little importance. I intend to follow a different direction and consider the evolutionary pressures that have brought us to our present state and how these forces will likely change. WHERE WE ARE TODAY Although the basic federal funding model has persisted for several decades, there is increasing dominance by NSF in academic funding, with a shrinking level of support from ONR and a short-term (roughly 10-year) flowering of support by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the 1990s. This change in the funding portfolio has had subtle, but significant, impacts on the field. As noted by Wunsch (1989), the traditional three-year, competitive grant cycle favored by NSF presents significant obstacles to the development of ocean instrumentation. Such high-risk activities often do not fare well in the peer review system * Excerpted from “Oceanography in 2028,” originally published in Oceanography, Vol. 21, No. 3. † College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State University
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Oceanography in 2025: Proceedings of a Workshop because the outcomes are less certain than research-focused proposals. Sustaining long time series is another challenge within the NSF funding environment. Eventually, such programs seem more akin to “monitoring” and more appropriate for a mission agency such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). FORCES FOR CHANGE Change in the nature of science questions is a hallmark of all science, not just oceanography. Forty years ago, physical oceanographic research focused on issues relevant to military concerns, such as ocean mixing, sound scattering, and mesoscale eddies, which would affect the ability to detect submarines. But tomorrow’s concerns and challenges will require a far higher level of integration of science across the Earth system, including the oft-neglected human dimension. Our community has adapted in the past and will in the future to the changing nature of the science, the issues of importance to society, and the analytical and observing tools that are available. But, have we become ossified to the extent that it is difficult to create new institutions and organizations and nearly impossible to eliminate old ones? Have our research institutions (and even our culture) become so deeply invested in their present structures that they will fail before they recognize and respond to a changing world? Or, will our response to these changes lose sight of our underlying purpose and values? More oceanographers are chasing after funds that are unlikely to grow at a rate that will even satisfy academic population growth (which is about 10% per year for new Ph.D.s in ocean sciences). With universities placing ever-increasing importance on grants and publications for promotion decisions, the field will experience an even harsher competitive environment. Universities will not be able to accommodate their needs even with a growing federal budget, and they will begin to pursue new sources of revenue such as state governments, corporations, private foundations, and even foreign governments. Unconstrained, high-risk research will be even more of a rarity, although the inherent conservativeness of the peer review system has already limited the success of such proposals (Braben 2008). In the area of cyberinfrastructure (CI), there have been several important shifts over the last decade. First, the near-ubiquitous deployment of a range of networks linking a wide variety of devices has transformed our model of a personal computer (PC) or a computer terminal linked to a mainframe into something much more dynamic and transitory. If research can be conducted effectively by accessing networked resources (e.g., sensors, digital libraries, collaborators), then how can universities justify their
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Oceanography in 2025: Proceedings of a Workshop indirect cost structures if faculty (or individual, nonaffiliated scientists) are working outside the university? Second, nearly every component of CI has moved into the commodity marketplace. Users must know how to evaluate and integrate these updated technologies; there will be little pre-or post-sale support. The rapid innovation cycle will stress both academics and funding agencies. Third, the traditional balances of control and authority have shifted. The relatively slow, well-defined process of data collection, analysis, manuscript preparation, peer review, and publication has been transformed, not simply replaced, with an online process. A NEW WORLD FOR THE OCEAN SCIENCES? Three forces will change the environment for our field over the next 20 years. First, federal funding will not grow at a rate sufficient to accommodate our needs or even the growing number of oceanography faculty. Second, even if new sources of funding become available, they will bring new expectations and new requirements. Third, the interconnected forces of globalization and CI open up new opportunities as well as challenges for our institutions and culture. Budget and political pressures will lead to a restructuring of our institutions by 2028. The smaller oceanography programs will likely continue much as they are today, focused primarily on teaching with some summer salary for faculty research. Some of the mid-size and very large programs will be absorbed into larger schools and colleges that will emphasize basic science education at the undergraduate level, and these education programs will look different from today’s discipline-based majors. A small number of the very large programs will persist largely unchanged although their programs will be under continuing and increasing financial pressure. Some will develop new business models, perhaps with university faculty running all of their grants through the private company but retaining a tenure-based “safety net” at a university for teaching. Such new, nonacademic organizations may bring much-needed flexibility compared to the traditional, discipline-bound and individual-focused academic promotion and tenure process. These organizations might even be more appealing to young scientists than the harsh competition and insecurity of a tenure track faculty position. By 2028, I expect that there will be far more corporate interest in some types of ocean research at academic institutions, not just scientific consulting firms. Along with expanded interests in ocean resources (e.g., open ocean aquaculture, deep sea resource extraction, wave energy), new opportunities will appear, such as iron fertilization as a carbon offset and phytoplankton as an energy source. Philanthropic support will also increase, but most of these new funds will
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Oceanography in 2025: Proceedings of a Workshop be targeted towards specific research programs or advocacy and education programs. As the existing oceanographic programs and institutions consolidate, restructure, or transform themselves, there will be significant impacts on the research fleet. We are on a trajectory today where there will be significantly fewer ship days available; there will be increasing emphasis by the agencies to further reduce operating costs. Observing systems will become more standardized, with a greater reliance on gliders, cabled observatories, and other autonomous systems that need much less ship support. Although this approach clearly has many advantages, it does represent a fundamental shift from scientists who develop their own tools and approaches to scientists who are “consumers” of standard data products. While, at some level, this shift to science consumers is a good thing, it does have a set of potentially negative impacts. For example, who will develop the next generation of science instruments? Are we training students in the appropriate way to balance the need to create new techniques and approaches with the need to be able to use standardized tools and data? Will CI that is developed to meet the needs of consumers and the entertainment industry continue to meet the needs of the scientific community? Will the sense of community engendered through the use of shared facilities be disrupted as the costs of these facilities compete for funds at the expense of support for principal investigators? Here are five actions that we could begin now to take control of our future: We need to move beyond the traditional discipline-based model of oceanography graduate education (which grew largely out of the Sverdrup, Johnson, and Fleming textbook ) and infuse oceanography into an undergraduate science curriculum that relies on hands-on research experience. Oceanography could serve as a framework for teaching the fundamental sciences (physics, chemistry, and biology) and mathematics. We need to develop new business models for oceanographic research that are not frozen in the present structures of tenure-based academic institutions or purely soft-money research businesses. Broadly based, interdisciplinary research teams do not fit comfortably within the rigid department-based environment of tenure, but they do need long-term stability and persistence to enable high-risk science that is often lacking in consulting firms driven by short-term needs for profitability. We need to engage the funding agencies as well as the private sector to develop new instrumentation that leverages modern design tools and capabilities, rather than simply tweaking the
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Oceanography in 2025: Proceedings of a Workshop approaches of the past 30 years. The ocean is a harsh environment, but this is not an excuse for continuing to rely on traditional instrument designs. We must work as a community to develop principles and establish processes that can balance the needs of community-based facilities and individual and team-based science. The only mechanism in place now is the constraint of funding availability. We must position ocean research and education within a larger context of the Earth as a system. This construct does not mean abandoning the unique vision and capabilities of oceanography. We must demonstrate both our willingness to understand the larger environmental issues facing society and our ability to inform decision-making with the best science. We will experience as many changes over the next 20 years as we have over the past two decades. Who could have foreseen the dramatic decline in sea-going oceanography just as the World Ocean Circulation Experiment (WOCE) and Joint Global Ocean Flux Study (JGOFS) were beginning in the mid-1980s or that an Earth observing system, which was in the midst of coming to fruition in the mid-1990s, would now be on the cusp of an “observational collapse” (NRC 2007)? The changes in the next 20 years will be more profound and more uncertain. How we as individual oceanographers, as individual institutions, and as a community choose to recognize and respond to these changes will set the course for our field for many decades. REFERENCES Braben, D.W. 2008. Scientific Freedom: The Elixir of Civilization. Wiley-Interscience, 184 pp. National Research Council. 2007. Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond. National Academies Press, Washington, DC. 428 pp. Sverdrup, H.U., M.W. Johnson, and R.W. Fleming. 1942. The Oceans: Their Physics, Chemistry and General Biology. Prentice-Hall, Englewood, NJ. 1060 pp. Wunsch, C. 1989. Comments on oceanographic instrumentation development. Oceanography. 2: 26-27.