Interdisciplinary and Multi-Mission Ocean Research
Major ocean research and management challenges facing our nation require interdisciplinary approaches that cut across the defined missions of individual government agencies. The complexity of these challenges should be matched by the use of sophisticated approaches that draw on strong expertise from a range of disciplines in order to enhance knowledge and apply that knowledge to the development of scientifically sound management strategies. Interdisciplinary studies not only increase the breadth of research possible, but also provide the opportunity for scientific advances that result from the transfer of technology, approaches, and ideas from one field to another. Basic research in the marine sciences contributes to other scientific disciplines, while advances in other fields yield opportunities for progress in ocean research. For example, recent advances in genomics and bioinformatics have only just begun to be applied to marine science, but already there have been dividends in terms of the ability to characterize marine microbial communities and to provide a greater range of microbial diversity to understand the fundamental properties of microbial genomes. Similar synergies exist for studies of complex dynamical systems, nanotechnology, robotics, resource economics, and co-management governance structures, among others.
Coordinated and collaborative efforts can also reduce unnecessary duplication of efforts and allow the best use of limited available funding. The need for strong, interdisciplinary, multiagency approaches to ocean research has been highlighted in the U.S. Ocean Action Plan, in congressional testimony by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Administrator Vice Admiral Conrad Lauten-
bacher (2006), and in Grand Challenges in Environmental Sciences (NRC, 2001).
The major themes and overarching opportunities identified in the draft plan are interdisciplinary in nature and require expertise from a variety of fields for substantial progress to be made. It is important to understand how ecosystem health affects human health and how climate change will affect both the basic functioning of the ocean ecosystem and the services that the ocean provides to human populations. “Increasing Resilience to Natural Hazards,” ecosystem-based management, and many of the other critical topics identified in the draft require the collaboration of a range of scientists, including climate scientists, ecologists, physical oceanographers, engineers, economists, and other social scientists.
The committee was encouraged by the acknowledgment in the draft plan of the importance of interdisciplinary science, as well as approaches that cut across agency missions. The six major research themes identified in the draft plan lend themselves to interdisciplinary ocean research efforts (Figure 4-1) and to collaboration both within and across agencies. The selection of the three overarching opportunities identified as key efforts that must be pursued—forecasting ocean processes, ecosystem-based management, and the ocean observing system—indicates recognition of the importance of multidisciplinary and multi-mission goals and approaches. Pursuing these opportunities will con-tribute to a range of disciplines and to several identified themes and will cut across mission agencies. The opportunities will also require the diverse skills of broad interdisciplinary teams.
The committee was also encouraged that descriptions of major research areas identified the need for integration, systems approaches, and collaboration in the conduct of research as well as in the gathering of data. However, the extent to which general language on these topics was fleshed out to identify important linkages among the six major themes and multidisciplinary needs within research priorities was uneven and in some instances quite weak (see Chapters 3 and 4 for additional discussion of linkages). For example, the theme “Enhancing Human Health” generally missed the opportunity to emphasize linkages, including those emphasized in the NRC report From Monsoons to Microbes: Understanding the Ocean’s Role in Human Health (NRC, 1999a) such as:
The relationship between ecosystem health and the contribution of oceans to human health and disease;
The relationship between marine biodiversity and the provision of novel marine compounds;
How the effects of climate change on the oceans may alter the effects of oceans on human health and disease; and
How an enhanced understanding of physical and chemical ocean processes may improve predictions of their effects oceans on human health and disease.
The importance of the combined effects of rising sea levels with storm surges and high-wave episodes, along with their impacts on coastal erosion, represents an important linkage between “The Ocean’s Role in Climate” and the “Increasing Resilience to Natural Hazards” themes that is not discussed. Similarly, the draft plan does not make an explicit connection between “Enabling Marine Operations” and “Stewardship of Our Natural and Cultural Ocean Resources.” This is especially important because of the inclusion of the living marine resources element of the stewardship theme. Although the draft plan is organized into distinct themes, these challenges do not occur in isolation and in fact, affect each other. Pointing out cross-theme linkages throughout the plan is important because it more accurately identifies both the range of specific expertise needed to address the major themes and the scope of interdisciplinary and multiagency efforts that are of high value.
Stovepiping of research into distinct themes without clearly defined interconnections can also result in both duplication of efforts and missed opportunities for multiagency collaboration. Planned redundancy and overlap in agency research efforts can improve the quality of data collection. However, unplanned redundancy utilizes resources that could otherwise be designated to increase the scope and complexity of approaches used to address pressing scientific challenges. For example, the NRC report A Geospatial Framework for the Coastal Zone: National Needs for Coastal Mapping and Charting (2004a) found that
at least 15 federal agencies are involved in the primary collection or use of coastal geospatial data. This has resulted in a chaotic collection of charting products that can frustrate the efforts of users to take advantage of existing datasets and build on past studies. (NRC, 2004a)
The use of “promotion of partnerships among disciplines and activities” as a stated criterion in the draft plan to prioritize research needs
is commended. The committee agrees with the statement in the “Next Steps” section of the draft that these partnerships and collaborative activities should reach beyond U.S. federal agencies and academic institutions. Scientific expertise and advances are greatly expanding, in both the industrialized and the developing world. Taking fullest advantage of opportunities and benefits for multidisciplinary and multi-mission programs to meet the challenges identified in this document requires reaching beyond the boarders of the United States, to the private sector, and to other government and nongovernmental entities whenever taking that step will strengthen science and stewardship. The European Union (EU), in particular, has greatly expanded the number and scope of large multidisciplinary research programs in ocean sciences and related fields. An even broader range of interdisciplinary and international scientific efforts is represented by several research efforts of the International Council for Science (ICSU), including the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research (SCOR), and the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP). All of these efforts have very extensive ocean components that include significant involvement of U.S. scientists and institutions. Partnerships between these EU and ICSU efforts and U.S. efforts should be encouraged, and lessons learned from the structure and organization of these research programs should be applied to similar U.S. efforts. An expanded consideration of international research collaborations would improve the final plan.
The focus on interdisciplinary science starts off in the right direction through much of the ORPP. However, the real test of a commitment to move beyond historical disciplinary and organizational barriers will be determined by whether the implementation strategy presents a pathway to break down barriers between disciplines and agencies to facilitate multidisciplinary, multi-mission programs. This could be accomplished most effectively by developing the implementation strategy in an open and transparent manner. As implementation planning proceeds, it will also be important to ensure that the separation of research challenges into six separate themes does not result in a de-emphasis of the interconnectedness of the challenges or a narrowing of approaches to address them.
The “Next Steps” section of the current document includes statements endorsed by the committee that may help guide the implementation of the current plan in a positive direction, but this also raises some concern. The committee encourages the major emphasis on coordination and collaboration among the broadly defined research and management communities. However, the committee questions whether restricting collaborative efforts to “existing mechanisms” will impede the pace or scope of scientific progress. A thorough investigation of the current regulations that affect the ability of agency scientists to participate in collaborative research efforts is beyond the scope of this report. Nevertheless, there are examples of impediments to agency-academia and multiagency collaborative research indicating that reliance on existing mechanisms may sometimes be problematic. For example, restrictions that limit participation by agency scientists in the preparation of proposals can ultimately limit their participation in research relevant to agency missions and can affect the scope and quality of research contained in proposals. Conversations with agency scientists also suggest that streamlining the red tape required to conduct interagency collaborative research would increase the frequency and extent of such collaborations. An examination of whether new mechanisms to foster multiagency research efforts would improve the quality and scope of interdisciplinary, multiagency science may be warranted. A starting point for such an investigation may be the discussion of problems and potential solutions surrounding funding of multiagency and agency-academia collaborative research in Bridging Boundaries through Regional Marine Research (NRC, 2000a).
ADDRESSING THE STATEMENT OF TASK AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Task 5 considers whether the document adequately identifies multidiscipline and/or multi-mission issues. The committee was encouraged by the emphasis that the current document places on the importance of multidisciplinary research and multi-mission issues. However, the committee does not believe the current document adequately incorporates or highlights multidisciplinary and multi-mission research needs within the descriptions of research themes and priorities.
The emphasis above on multidisciplinary, multi-mission efforts and collaboration should not be interpreted as a recommendation to abandon or downplay the importance of development of strong expertise within
disciplines. Scientific advances, training, and expertise within disciplines are required for effective multidisciplinary efforts. Advances in narrowly defined fields can be critical to solutions of important scientific challenges and can help identify the most important contributions from other disciplines. The importance of strong professional training programs in disciplines that contribute to ocean research is also highlighted in Chapter 7A of this report.
RECOMMENDATION: The ORPP should provide a more comprehensive description of the needs and opportunities for multidisciplinary research, as well as research partnerships (multiagency and agency-academia-industry-international) for each societal theme. A more thorough description of the needs and opportunities for multidisciplinary collaborative efforts in the current document should set the model for the implementation phase of this planning effort.
RECOMMENDATION: The implementation strategy for the ORPP should evaluate the adequacy of existing mechanisms for interagency and agency-academia collaborative research to identify opportunities to improve collaboration among sectors. Barriers that result from burdensome red tape as well as those resulting from specific prohibitions should be considered.
RECOMMENDATION: Disciplinary expertise and research should not be neglected in the description of important research and training needs presented in the plan. Such expertise is critical to progress in all areas of science, and it is necessary for the success of multidisciplinary research programs.