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50 Years of Ocean Discovery: National Science Foundation 1950—2000
continue to rely on the United States and other developed countries to provide much of the science to support important ocean and marine resource policy decisions.
The importance of ONR to the advancement of ocean science cannot be underestimated. In the wake of the Cold War, ONR continues to substantially fund ocean research and is playing a leading role in the successful implementation of the National Oceanographic Partnership Program. But our understanding of national defense is itself evolving. Increasingly, it is referred to as national security and includes notions of economic and environmental security. Undoubtedly, national defense will continue to be a major driver of ocean research. However, budget pressures may reduce support for basic research in favor of applied science linked directly to meeting priority security concerns.
Despite concerns for environmental integrity and declines in the populations of many fish and other marine resources, economic opportunities in the ocean continue to drive ocean research. In some cases, such as fisheries, the economic revival of a now-compromised industry is driving increased science. At the same time, new economic opportunities are driving ocean science. For example, the discovery of new life forms around thermal vents in the deep ocean is resulting in expanding research into marine pharmacology. The economic importance of fisheries, marine transportation and trade, coastal tourism, and mineral development will continue to drive the need for science to promote wise decision making, balance conflicts among users, and promote sustainable practices.
Clearly, environmental concerns will continue to be an increasingly important driver of ocean science. Just 30 years ago, economics was the primary driver as evidenced by the work of the Stratton Commission. Today, climate change, seasonal events such as El Niño, depleted fisheries, nutrient enrichment, harmful algal blooms, dying coral reefs, coastal water pollution, and other environmental challenges are driving a larger share of the investment in marine research. Implementing principles of sustainable development, that is, the balancing of economic and environmental objectives, will require increased investment in science to provide the basis for resource use decisions. For example, increased interest in science is a fundamental result of employing precautionary practices because science will provide the basis for improved assessments of impacts and for reducing the uncertainties posed by potentially high-risk activities.
The outlook for investment in ocean science is bright in part because there are so many critical and emerging national needs for improved information on oceans, marine ecosystems, and marine resources. However, despite the rapid rate of change and technological advancement during the past 30 years, the nation has not updated its ocean policy since the Stratton Commission. For example, 30 years ago we did not have rights and responsibilities for the exclusive economic zone—a national marine area larger than the land mass of the entire country for which we have no research strategy or integrated management plans.
ONR, NAS, NSF, other agencies, and the oceanographic community at large have done a fairly good job of accommodating and adjusting to changing ocean science and policy needs. However, rapid change and growth have made it difficult to keep an eye on the big picture. If ocean research is to result in improved policy making and best serve the public and future generations, there is a need to undertake a review of where we are going and to set a path to get us there. There is a need for a collaborative effort that includes marine scientists, government policy makers, industry, and environmental interests to forge a national ocean strategy.
Carson, R. 1962. Silent Spring. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, Massachusetts.
Commission on Marine Science, Engineering and Resources (CMSER). 1969. Pp. 21-22 in Our Nation and the Sea: A Plan for National Action . U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.