We can afford all that we need; but we cannot afford all that we want.
—Franklin D. Roosevelt, Veto of the Bonus Bill (May 22, 1935)
Over the past 15 years the cost of infrastructure has steadily increased, consuming a larger fraction of the total budget for the National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Ocean Sciences (OCE) (Figure 4-1). The rise in infrastructure expenditures has been driven by the addition of new infrastructure such as the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI), and by continuing support for operations and maintenance (O&M) costs for other facilities, including the JOIDES Resolution for the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP [2013-2018]) and the ships in the academic research fleet. Some of the cost increase has been driven by higher fuel costs; such price fluctuations are difficult to avoid or to compensate for in the future. In the absence of top-line budget growth, an over-reliance on infrastructure consumes funds that otherwise could support the core science program. Since 2003, there has been a ~37% decline in the funding available for the core science program (based on inflation-adjusted values), which has had pervasive negative impacts on the research community through a reduction in the number of funded proposals and declining programmatic flexibility to fund new initiatives. For example, infrastructure costs rose by about $10 million/yr between 2011 and 2014, using inflation-adjusted values. Taking $173,000 as a typical funding level for a single principal investigator proposal,1 the infrastructure increase is roughly equivalent to reducing funding for OCE core science programs by over 50 proposals each year.
In addition to a reduction of core science funding, there has been a precipitous drop in funding for Oceanographic Technology and Interdisciplinary Coordination (OTIC) (Figure 4-2). OTIC is the main source of support for technology development within OCE. In prior years, OCE benefited from other agencies’ investments in technology development (often the Office of Naval Research [ONR]). However, ONR and other agency funding for ocean technology has become more restricted, more scrutinized for relevance to agency missions, and less flexible in terms of cost sharing.
In the statement of task, the committee is charged with recommending “the most effective portfolio of investments achievable at the current funding level.” Assuming that the OCE budget is unlikely to grow significantly over the next decade, and that cost inflation will continue at recent historical rates, the only way to restore core science and OTIC is to reduce the amount spent on infrastructure.
As mentioned in the previous chapter, the NSF Directorate for Geosciences (GEO) plans to provide $42 million over the next 4 budget years through Integrative and Collaborative Education and Research (ICER) funds. These funds would be available to help OCE manage the onset of O&M costs for OOI and devote more of its budget to the core science programs. Although this would provide OCE with some short-term relief, the ICER funds would only temporarily reduce the rate of decline in core science funding, with severe cuts becoming necessary in FY2018 if OCE fails to reduce infrastructure O&M costs. This reduction will not be easy, is unlikely to be done quickly, and will cause disruptions for parts of the ocean science community. However, the committee felt strongly that restoring the core science budget and investing in technological innovation is essential and will promote the vision presented at the beginning of this report—that of a diverse community of researchers able to
1 $173,000 has been the average funding level per OCE proposal per year over the past 10 years (written response from Kandace Binkley, NSF, December 10, 2014).
FIGURE 4-1 NSF investments in core ocean science (blue) and infrastructure (orange) since 2000, shown in (a) current dollars and (b) 2014 inflation-adjusted dollars. Total funding for OCE is shown in green. Projections for fiscal years 2015-2019 (lighter colors) are based on the following assumptions provided by OCE—total future budgets are flat with no inflationary increases and operations and maintenance costs for the academic research fleet, IODP, and OOI are held constant. OCE defines “infrastructure” as the academic research fleet, OOI, IODP, field stations and marine laboratories, the accelerator mass spectrometer facility, and miscellaneous smaller facilities. Facilities held in the core programs (shown in Table 3-1) are included in core science, not in infrastructure. Data from NSF, December 2014.
undertake research and pursue discoveries that will advance ocean science understanding.
Oceanography requires specialized, often expensive infrastructure to observe and access the ocean. Ocean science will continue to need investment in both infrastructure and research, but sustained and conscious management is needed to ensure an appropriate balance for the overall health of the field. As defined in the report’s Introduction, a “healthy balance” means supporting sufficient infrastructure to efficiently advance the science while maintaining research funds for scientists and trainees.
The OCE budget has drifted out of balance. Due to relatively flat budgets, inflation, and increasing costs of O&M for OCE major infrastructure, funding for OCE’s core programs has decreased by 25% (inflation-adjusted dollars) over the past 4 years (2011-2014). Consequently, the balance of OCE’s budget has shifted such that the fraction dedicated to core science has declined from about 55% in 2011 to about 45% in 2014 (Figure 4-2). Assuming that the budget remains level (adjusted for inflation) or flat (no increase to offset inflation), restoring core science will require difficult decisions to reduce the costs of O&M.
The committee identified two ways to achieve balance: (1) maintain a fixed ratio for infrastructure costs relative to the total budget and (2) maintain a consistent long-term funding trajectory for core science. The applicability of these two approaches depends on the fiscal outlook.
In periods of flat or declining budgets, using a fixed ratio as a target for guiding expenditures would ensure that one part of the budget does not increase at the expense of the other. As an example, recent OCE practice has been to cover infrastructure costs first and then distribute remaining funds to other programs, thereby increasing the ratio of infrastructure expenditures relative to core science. This practice risks long-term damage to the core programs if funding remains stagnant through many budget cycles. Maintaining a fixed ratio would prevent the infrastructure costs from taking priority, but it would require active management of O&M costs by implementing efficiencies and making targeted cuts if expenses exceed budgets. In practice, a fixed ratio may be difficult to manage if there are long-term facility contracts that need to be considered.
In times of increasing budgets, maintaining a consistent long-term funding trajectory for core science may provide a better approach to achieve balance than a fixed ratio. This alternative strategy accommodates adjustments in the fraction of funds dedicated to infrastructure to reflect short-term needs or long-term changes in the use of existing infrastructure assets, as well as development of new technologies and facilities.
When dealing with a constrained budget, there are several options available to manage programs effectively while minimizing impacts on core science budgets. These options—not all of which are applicable to all types of infrastructure—include descoping or terminating activities, lengthening program time horizons, delaying the start of new or planned programs or facilities, and finding efficiencies to lower cost. The choice of action if there is a budget cut, and acceptance of the ensuing consequences, depends strongly on whether the reduction is temporary or permanent. For a temporary cut it may be sufficient to delay the start of a planned activity or it may be possible to identify sufficient efficiencies to avoid programmatic cuts. However, for a longer-term or permanent budget loss, stronger actions may be required such as the descoping or termination of a program. These actions will yield immediate savings but over the long term may be unpopular and irreversible. Alternatively, a program could be stretched such that the annual budget is lower, but the program continues for a longer period of time. Lengthening the time period assumes that the program end date can be extended or that the program can operate at a reduced level, either of which may not be possible or desirable. Finally, lowering costs of ongoing activities may yield suboptimal results, or may require up-front investment in technology that may be unfeasible. Given these choices, the committee established three strategic principles to guide decision making in an uncertain budget climate: promote a decadal budget planning outlook, maintain conservative infrastructure strategies, and involve the community in setting goals. When combined with open communication and consistent actions, these principles (described below) will allow NSF to achieve a reasonable balance between investigator-driven science and the ongoing costs of infrastructure while maintaining support of the community as a whole.
Promote a Decadal Budget Planning Outlook
A10-year budget planning outlook can take into account both inflation and anticipated increased costs of doing business, while accounting for risks associated with unpredictable cost fluctuations. When budgets are increasing, strategic investments need to be made in activities that increase capabilities and reduce long-term costs—for instance, new technology development. Given the federal government’s reliance on annual budgets, creative and disciplined fiscal management is necessary to manage long-term programs and life-cycle costs. Although a 10-year plan will require adjustments to address evolving circumstances, the exercise of decadal-scale budget planning enhances fiscal discipline, enables balance, and informs strategic choices before they become crises.
FIGURE 4-2 Annual budgets for OCE core research and education programs in (a) current dollars and (b) 2014 inflation-adjusted dollars. The Biological Oceanography budget includes funding for Long-Term Ecological Research. Since FY2004, the Chemical Oceanography budget has included funding for Oceans and Human Health. Data from NSF, July 2014.
Maintain Conservative Infrastructure Investment Strategies
Given the uncertain budget environment, it is prudent to assume budget cuts are permanent and increases are temporary (see Box 4-1). Strategies for controlling the full life-cycle costs of infrastructure have to be identified prior to the addition of any new asset. Assumptions that prove to be too conservative can be corrected in future budget cycles.
Involve the Community in Setting Goals
Involving the scientific community in the development of strategic goals and objectives provides a broad base for identifying priorities and building community support for the enterprise into the future. The NSF Advisory Committee for Geosciences2 (AC-GEO) is composed of established members of the scientific community and hence could serve as a link between the broader community and NSF. When tough decisions need to be made, the involvement of AC-GEO could bolster support for adhering to strategic plans. Community-developed strategies could help make difficult decisions defensible and reduce the pressure and criticism borne by OCE program managers and leadership.
Recommendation 1: In order to sustain a robust ocean science community, holistic fiscal planning is necessary to maintain a balance of investments between core research programs and infrastructure. To maintain a resolute focus on sustaining core research programs during flat or declining budgets, infrastructure expenses should not be allowed to escalate at the expense of core research programs.
The committee developed a strategy for restoring balance to the OCE budget over the next decade. Because core funding has been decreasing over the past 4 years of flat budgets (Figure 4-1), the immediate goal is to reverse the decline in core science funding. This is consistent with the strategy described above to maintain the ratio of core science and infrastructure funding when the program is level funded or declining. Assuming that OCE has a flat budget over the next 10 years, at least 20% (about $40 million in 2014 dollars) of the major infrastructure O&M budget would need to be reallocated to core science and the OTIC program to meet this goal. This would restore core science funding to approximately the 2011 budget amount. A greater reduction of 30% (about $60 million) would provide future flexibility for new programs and for investments in technology development that could help reduce infrastructure O&M.
The following scenarios illustrate how managers could maintain programmatic balance for increasing, level, or decreasing budgets.
The Good: A Doubling of the NSF Budget over 10 Years
Programs receive a 7%/yr increase (about 4% with inflation taken into account) for a 48% increase over 10 years (constant dollars). Under this scenario, the strategy would be to maintain the consistent long-term funding trajectory for core science. New projects would be screened to ensure that they could be phased in or scaled up or down to accommodate potential surprises in future budgets. Ongoing efforts would be reviewed for possible increases; investments in technologies that might increase efficiency or productivity would be encouraged.
The Bad: A Level 10-Year Budget for NSF, Just Keeping Up with Inflation
Because programs would see no change in their budgets over the decade, the strategy would be to maintain a fixed ratio of core science to infrastructure costs. This would provide stability to the science program as a whole, while providing some flexibility to exploit new science or technology developments. If infrastructure O&M costs rise faster than the rate of inflation, then adjustments would be made in activities that could be phased or in activities with sufficient budget flexibility to be temporarily (or permanently) descoped.
The Ugly: A Budget for NSF That Does Not Keep Up with Inflation over 10 Years
Because programs would see a decline in their budgets in terms of spending power, the strategy would again be to maintain a fixed ratio of core science to infrastructure costs. Management would delay new starts, consider potential terminations, and implement overall descoping and slowdowns. A transition plan would be developed, with defined end points upon which management has sought and developed broad community agreement.
Recommendation 2: OCE should strive to reduce the O&M costs of its major infrastructure (OOI, IODP, and the academic research fleet) and restore funding to core science and OTIC within the next 5 years. If budgets remain flat or have only inflationary increases, OCE should adjust its major infrastructure programs to comprise no more than 40-50% of the total annual program budget.
Recommendation 3: To implement Recommendation 2, OCE should initiate an immediate 10% reduction in major infrastructure costs in its next budget, followed by an additional 10-20% decrease over the following 5 years. Cost savings should be applied directly to strengthening the core science programs, investing in technology development, and funding substantive partnerships to address the decadal science priorities, with the ultimate goal of achieving a rebalancing of major infrastructure costs to core science funding within the next 5 years.
These recommendations are predicated on the assumption of flat or level budgets over the next five budget cycles. If this projection proves too pessimistic, the priority would still be on restoring the core science budget but would be likely to have fewer negative impacts on the infrastructure budget.
Maintaining Technology Development Investments
Technology development is essential to enable research on many of the decadal priority questions and on emerging research from the core programs. However, funding for OTIC has dropped precipitously, from $19.2 million in 2009 ($21.2 million in 2014 dollars) to $6.5 million in 2014. The committee supports a three-pronged approach: (1) revitalize and grow the OTIC program, (2) incentivize the core research programs to cost-share with OTIC on needed technology development, and (3) emphasize interagency technology development and co-funding through the National Oceanographic Partnership Program.3 These approaches strengthen OCE’s ability to address its own technology development needs, give program managers an incentive to support emerging technologies, and allow interagency cooperation to foster technology development of broad oceanographic interest.
There are two main advantages to an immediate cut. First, it emphasizes the restoration of the core science budget, which the committee believes is the most fundamental element of the research enterprise. Second, it makes a strong statement to the community that the current budget situation is unacceptable and that decisions can no longer be postponed. Because the committee was tasked to recommend a portfolio of investments that aligned with the decadal science priorities and were achievable at the current funding level, it evaluated three scenarios of cost reduction that could be used to achieve an immediate 10% cost savings (at a minimum) upon implementation:
- Scenario 1—Immediate termination of NSF support for either OOI or IODP;
- Scenario 2—A 10% across-the-board cut applied equally to each of the major NSF-supported infrastructure assets (OOI, IODP, fleet); and
- Scenario 3—A 10% “weighted cut” divided among the major infrastructure assets, weighted by their alignment with the science priorities (described in Chapter 3) and the broader OCE science portfolio.
The committee’s decisions are based on (1) information provided by NSF on its investments in ocean research infrastructure, (2) the committee’s evaluation of the major infrastructure that is critical or important to the decadal science priorities (Table 3-2), (3) the recognition that infrastructure and facilities are vital in the support of OCE core programs, (4) the annual O&M costs of each of the facilities, (5) the committee’s expectation that new technologies will be developed to address both the decadal priorities and core science research (recognizing that the capabilities and costs of those technologies are not yet known), and (6) input from the ocean science community via town hall discussions and Virtual Town Hall submissions. These follow the spirit of the prioritization framework described in the National Research Council (NRC) report, Critical Infrastructure for Ocean Research and Societal Needs in 2030 (NRC, 2011), which suggests first determining the ability of infrastructure to address the science, then examining its affordability, efficiency, and longevity.
Depending on the option chosen, these scenarios would achieve an immediate 10-30% cut in major infrastructure. The committee considered whether to discuss termination of the academic fleet but dismissed it because ships support a broad swath of oceanographic activities and are essential to achieve all of the science priorities. However, as noted in future sections, the committee undertook a thorough examination of issues related to the fleet, such as the mix of ship capabilities and right-sizing in the future.
Scenario 1: Immediate Termination of Either OOI or IODP
Pros: Terminating NSF support for either IODP or OOI would provide immediate budget flexibility for OCE and would obviate the need for future incremental cuts. OOI does not yet have a strongly developed user community and its global components do not align well with the decadal science priorities. Terminating IODP would make room for new opportunities in the ocean sciences, rather than continual funding of a decades-long program. Restored core science
funding could potentially expand analysis of archived data from IODP or could be reinvested in less-expensive options for recovery of shorter cores. The absence of NSF support for IODP could also spur innovation and may prompt other nations to develop or expand their own drilling capabilities.
Cons: Termination of NSF support for either OOI or IODP would be a loss of recent investments (“sunk costs” that are not recoverable) and future opportunity. The community has not yet assessed the impacts that OOI will have on provision of data (e.g., time series, coastal observations, air-sea flux calibrations), especially with further development or expansion. In addition, terminating all of OOI would be an inefficient use of the costs of construction and installation, because it disallows strategies based on the relative scientific merits of different OOI components (see below). IODP has an impressive record of past scientific accomplishments, has been responsive to recent restructuring and cost cutting, and has strong support from a multidisciplinary, multinational user community. Without NSF support for IODP, there is lost opportunity to study deep cores and to understand new forms of life in the subseafloor. Terminating NSF support for IODP would also damage the international collaborative efforts and leveraging that have been hallmarks of the program.
Scenario 2: Across-the-Board Cuts
Pros: An across-the-board cut is commonly perceived as equitable and unbiased, as it “spreads the pain” and may lead to broader community acceptance. It stimulates efficiencies across all of the programs and preserves all the tools that could support the decadal science priorities for continued community use, although there may be some diminished capacity.
Cons: It could be perceived as unfair because some programs (e.g., IODP) have recently restructured to achieve greater efficiencies. Other programs such as OOI are viewed as less essential for the broad oceanographic community (in part because they are not yet operating) or are less aligned with the identified science priorities. On a practical level, contracts that are already in place for some assets—for example, OOI or JOIDES Resolution operations—may make immediate across-the-board reductions unfeasible.
Scenario 3: Weighted Cuts
Pros: Cuts that are divided based on a weighting scheme can be better aligned with identified science priorities, with OCE core programs, and with community interest and demand. Weighting different programs also acknowledges recent efficiencies in program management. Finally, weighted cuts provide greater flexibility to accommodate existing agreements and to achieve efficiencies with the least disruption to ongoing science activities.
Cons: It is likely to be perceived as unfair because some parts of the ocean science community will bear a heavier burden than others. Programs with heavy up-front costs that take a heavier share of the cut may become so constrained that they cannot effectively support their science, while programs with a lesser share of the cut have less incentive to look closely for efficiencies.
Of the three scenarios, the option of immediately terminating NSF support for either IODP or OOI (an extreme version of the weighted cuts) was rejected as failing to reflect an appropriate consideration of balance. Instead, the committee considered across-the-board and weighted-cut scenarios, including examples of how such reductions might be achieved, and determined that weighted cuts, which take into account the alignment of infrastructure reductions with scientific priorities, was the most compelling argument among those put forward.
Determining the Weighted Cuts
To apply the strategy of weighted cost reductions, the committee returned to the alignment of science priorities with the major infrastructure (Chapter 3) but also evaluated costs of operation, efficiencies that could be gained, and likelihood of community support. Based on this assessment, the committee determined the following distribution of initial cost reductions among OOI, IODP (2013-2018), and the academic research fleet.
Recommendation 4: The immediate initial 10% cost reduction in major infrastructure should be distributed, with the greatest reduction applied to OOI, a moderate reduction to IODP (2013-2018), and the smallest reduction to the academic research fleet.
A suggested weighting is to initially and immediately reduce operational costs for OOI by 20%, for IODP by 10%, and for the academic research fleet by 5%. OOI is targeted for the greatest cost reduction because none of its components are critical for the decadal science priorities, the program has considerably less community support than either IODP (2013-2018) or the fleet, and there are areas where rephased operations (like longer deployment periods for moorings or somewhat reduced arrays) might provide efficiencies. The component structure of OOI provides flexibility to favor retention of those components that align more strongly with the decadal science priorities (such as the coastal arrays or the cabled observatory) and the broader OCE science program, or to focus attention on one or two global sites to minimize logistics costs and to demonstrate proof of concept. The 20% cut to OOI does not necessarily need to be applied evenly across its components, as the same considerations used to weight cuts among facilities should also be used to distribute cost reductions among the components.
Applying a moderate weighted cut to IODP is a reflection that, although it fulfills some science priorities that cannot be met with any other infrastructure, IODP is an expensive facility and serves a smaller community than is served by the academic research fleet. However, it has had a long history of support from NSF and has produced transformative science.
All of the identified science priorities need access to the sea, which justifies the committee’s suggestion that the smallest cost reduction be applied to the academic research fleet. In addition, research vessels are fundamental infrastructure that is shared across the broad ocean sciences community (other agencies and other parts of NSF share in the cost), and the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS) and NSF constantly review the fleet for further program efficiencies.
In the next section, the committee provides some specific examples that NSF might pursue to achieve these cost reductions. These are not meant to be prescriptive; rather they illustrate the difficult decisions that must be made to achieve balance with funding for core science. The committee leaves it to NSF, in consultation with the ocean science community, to make the determinations as to which reductions would provide the greatest efficiency.
To achieve a rebalance over the following 5 years, infrastructure costs will need to be cut an additional 10-20%. These sustained cuts are just as difficult as the immediate cost reductions and in some instances may lead to discussions about how much can be cut from an individual program without damaging its intrinsic ability to function.
An immediate 20% (~$10 million) cut to OOI is likely to be difficult or impossible to accomplish without eliminating some of the array components. Both of these options below would be needed to reach the suggested cost reduction:
- Cut two of the global moorings. When determining which moorings to cut, NSF needs to consider long- term costs for operations and maintenance (slightly higher for the Southern Hemisphere moorings) and scientific rationale. As noted in Chapter 3, the Irminger Sea mooring has the strongest science justification and is likely to advance the goal of improving storm forecasting and climate change models. The committee was not presented with a persuasive case for the Argentine Basin array.
Consequences: Cutting two global moorings would provide cost savings of ~$7.2-7.5 million/yr in O&M costs, but would remove some observing capabilities and reduce UNOLS fleet use, as part of the cost savings is in ship time. Operating two moorings could provide “proof of concept,” while the descoped moorings could be used for repairs to other OOI moorings, further reducing future O&M costs. As an alternative to cutting one or both moorings, NSF could potentially recruit partners, in the United States and internationally, to share long-term O&M costs.
- Reduce the costs of the coastal and cabled components and administration by 10%, which would provide ~$4 million in savings.
Consequences: It is likely that some functionality (such as data collection or turnaround maintenance time) would be sacrificed for each affected component. If data streams break down or there are inoperable subsystems for sustained periods of time (weeks to months), it could reduce the potential user base.
Sustained Cuts over 5 Years
Further cost reductions over 5 years could be achieved by a continued 10%/yr cut to the cabled observatory and coastal array O&M (~$9 million, averaging $1.8 million per year) and by a reduction in administration costs by 5%/yr ($3 million, averaging $0.6 million/year). In addition, rather than moving the Pioneer Array in 2020, the component could be eliminated for a costs savings of $9.9 million. It may be possible to manage the elimination of the Pioneer Array by awarding use of the array via an open competition (possibly including funding partners other than or in addition to NSF) that could encourage research groups to propose ocean process studies in other continental shelf locations.
Overall Consequences for OOI
The consequences of these example cuts to a new program are likely to be severe, as the initial reductions would take place just as scientists are beginning to consider OOI assets for proposed research. If OOI management chooses to reduce costs without downscoping the current operational plan, the risk to all components will be high. Eliminating some OOI components may also provide much-needed flexibility if O&M frequency and/or costs for remaining components increase.
The potential applications of OOI may be of scientific interest to other nations and other U.S. federal agencies. As mentioned previously, OOI may want to consider broadening international participation. Adding international partners could relieve NSF of some of the long-term costs for O&M, especially the ship time needed for maintenance of the global
moorings. As discussed in Chapter 3, recruiting international partners for cost sharing has been a successful strategy for IODP. However, it takes dedicated time and sustained effort to build international collaboration and funding support.
If other U.S. federal agencies express an interest in using OOI as a national asset, then cost-sharing arrangements with these agencies would be appropriate and reasonable to cover the ongoing O&M costs. Foreseeably, some components of OOI could become part of an ocean observing system maintained over the long term by an operational agency. An interagency model similar to UNOLS could be developed to manage the facility.
Four options to immediately cut ~$6 million from IODP (about 10% of the FY2014 budget for IODP science and infrastructure) were considered. Because of the “component-less” structure of NSF’s contributions to IODP (2013-2023)—the JOIDES Resolution, rather than multiple ships or moorings that can be considered separately—and because of recent organizational changes and cost-cutting measures, the committee found it difficult to suggest examples of how cuts might be achieved. As a result, the committee also considered options that increased external revenue in addition to making cuts from NSF. The committee notes that there is an overarching concern that the international scientific ocean drilling community as a whole is overextended in terms of the number of platforms.
- Raise more revenue from international partners.
Consequences: Raising the subscription price, the cost of complementary proposals, and/or increasing the number of international partners in IODP has the potential for revenue enhancement, but the potential loss of some members could negate these gains. Increasing the proportional membership of existing partners or the number of members could be based on a more stringent cost-benefit calculation, such that no partners receive subsidies. It is possible that a lower NSF contribution would reduce the number of berths available to U.S. scientists, implying a loss of cost efficiency for the NSF-supported part of the program, but this might be mitigated by enhanced shore-based participation due to more flexibility in core program funding.
- Increase external funding for operations. Additional support for the JOIDES Resolution could come from non-U.S. national science programs or from the private sector.
Consequences: There is potential for substantial cost savings, if the support provided by industry or non-U.S. national entities accounts for the costs of developing the program and its infrastructure, not just the incremental costs of operating another expedition. For example, this could mean increasing the cost of Complementary Project Proposals to accurately reflect the full cost of an expedition.
- Reduce costs for operations by reducing program-funded science services. On-ship laboratories, downhole tools, and instrumented boreholes (among other instruments and facilities) could be funded by external grants or other sources.
Consequences: The cost savings are likely to be small, and dependent on the complexity of particular expeditions. However, it would signal a shift from providing science services through infrastructure costs to providing it through science programs funded by NSF or other agencies. It could encourage technological innovation, but it could also lead to a loss of consistency among science services. There is also potential for serious mismatch between investigators’ ability to get ship time and also to get external funding for science, which could compromise an expedition’s scientific goals and achievements.
- Reduce the number of expeditions per year.
Consequences: Because of the standing costs of operating the JOIDES Resolution, removing an expedition would save on the order of $2-4 million but would reduce cost efficiency. The risk of reducing operations is dropping below a level that can sustain experienced staff and/or operations. Reducing operations to 6 months per year (from 8) may be below this threshold and risks collapse of the program through loss of staff. It could also jeopardize the long-term lease from the ship operator/owner.
Sustained Cuts over 5 Years
Additional cost reductions to cut another 10% of the IODP budget will likely follow the same options as the immediate cuts: raising revenues from international partners, finding new funding streams from other agencies or the private sector, or by further reducing the number of expeditions.
The Academic Research Fleet
As part of the overall strategy to reduce infrastructure costs, an initial cut of approximately $3 million would be
needed, representing a ~4% reduction in FY2014 UNOLS operating costs. Given the magnitude of the immediate cut and the uneven utilization rates (sea days per vessel) by various classes of vessels, the committee explored the option of laying up one of the 19 vessels in the fleet. This strategy is complicated by the spatial distribution of the current fleet and by the presence of purpose-built assets versus general-purpose ships. Three separate options for a fleet lay-up were considered, each of which would meet the requirement for an approximate $3 million savings in the near term. The third option occurred in October 2014, as this report was being prepared for review.
- Immediate lay-up of the R/V Langseth. Langseth is operated less and has a higher day rate than the other general-purpose Global class vessels and Atlantis.
Consequences: This option would lead to a reduced capability for subseafloor research due to the loss of access to specialized seismic tools. It would also lead to the loss of a Global class vessel, although its use as a general-purpose platform is questionable. Commercial seismic ships could be chartered as an alternative, which would require an analysis of charter rates and mission requirements.
- Consolidation of Atlantic Ocean/Intermediate class ships. Endeavor and Atlantic Explorer operated a total of 366 ship days at a cost of $7.6 million in 2013. Laying up the less-capable Atlantic Explorer is more cost effective and would shift operating days to Endeavor.
Consequences: Atlantic Explorer is the dedicated ship for the Bermuda Atlantic Time-series Study (BATS), and it would be inefficient to transit Endeavor to Bermuda for frequent BATS sampling while also maintaining a schedule of general-purpose oceanography on the East and Gulf Coasts. This could have impacts on the continuation of the BATS data and its scale of operation.
- Consolidation of Pacific Ocean/Intermediate class ships. In October 2014, Scripps Institution of Oceanography decided to withdraw New Horizon from service in February 2015. Together, New Horizon and Oceanus (Oregon State University) totaled 325 ship days in 2013, at an operating cost of $7 million. Laying up New Horizon is likely to shift operating days to Oceanus.
Consequences: Withdrawing New Horizon from service leads to a ~40% capacity loss for this class on the West Coast but will increase the use of Oceanus and likely reduce its day rate.
Sustained Cuts over 5 Years
Lowering fleet costs could be achieved by delaying or canceling the planned construction of the third Regional class research vessel (RCRV). The business case for this vessel needs to be carefully considered, as the RCRV O&M costs are considerably higher than the vessels they are intended to replace. Operating two, rather than three, RCRVs at 200 days/yr (the lower end of the anticipated full operating year) saves at least $4.4 million/yr in operating costs. Alternatively, cost savings could be achieved by constructing and operating a Gulf of Mexico RCRV in conjunction with partner organizations that are likely to need Regional class ship time (e.g., the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA], Gulf states).
In addition, cost savings could be achieved by declining to fund the Phase 2 Alvin upgrade. Because scientific demand is high for access to Global class ships, NSF needs to consider the option of taking Alvin out of service and using Atlantis as a general-purpose vessel, if there is sufficient demand.
Right-Sizing the Fleet
In Chapter 3, Global class ships were among the infrastructure that was aligned most strongly to the decadal science priorities. Regional class ships were also found to be critical or important for many of the priorities. However, the planned fleet replacement of three Regional vessels and no Global vessels results in a mismatch between the future makeup of the fleet and likely research needs. The committee is concerned by the lack of an articulated plan to replace the Global class ships, especially because they appear to have the greatest demand signal into the next decade. If the Langseth is laid up, only Revelle and the ice-capable Sikuliaq will be available for use by 2022 (unless the Thompson receives its mid-life refit). The new Ocean class ships approach the Global class in size and endurance, but they are more limited in berthing and deck space and will likely not be capable of some larger expeditionary operations.
Similarly, the planned RCRVs are much larger than the existing Regional vessels, with capabilities that approach the existing Ocean/Intermediate class except in duration and range. Alternatively, NSF may reconsider the current design of the RCRVs and determine if smaller, less-expensive vessels would better meet regional needs.
Recommendation 5: NSF should reconsider whether the current RCRV design is aligned with scientific needs and is cost effective in terms of long-term O&M, and should plan to build no more than two RCRVs.
The committee notes that both OOI and IODP (2013-2018) are scheduled for reviews at the time of key milestones in the 2017/2018 timeframe. Management of OOI operations is to be recompeted in 2017 and IODP (2013-2018) will have completed the first 5 years of its 10-year program. Additionally, the current National Deep Submergence Facility (NDSF) award expires June 2015 and a proposal to renew is expected this year. The results of these proposals and reviews could inform the distribution of additional infrastructure cuts for cost reduction, both between and within programs. For example, this might modify the balance of initial cost reductions affecting OOI. The committee endorses the recommendation from Critical Infrastructure for Ocean Research and Societal Needs in 2030 (NRC, 2011) that major ocean research infrastructure “be reviewed on a regular basis for responsiveness to evolving scientific needs [and] cost effectiveness.” However, these periodic reviews are not a reason to delay immediate and sustained cuts, which are needed to rebalance the portfolio.
There are a number of issues that could be considered in the IODP (2013-2018) review. These include
- Evaluating the U.S.-supported IODP business model to determine if the program can be operated efficiently yet productively at current or lower budgets;
- Determining the progress of acquiring other funding sources (e.g., additional international partners, industry) to supplement NSF operational costs for the JOIDES Resolution;
- Evaluating the major and/or transformative scientific accomplishments of the program, and recommending changes to program priorities for the next 5 years; and
- Determining if there is an appropriate time to sunset NSF support for the program.
Issues that could be considered in the OOI review include
- Restructuring operations and management to better engage the broader science community and provide greater cost efficiency, such as possibly decentralizing management and having components report directly to NSF;
- Assessing the effectiveness of existing oversight committees;
- Evaluating which components align most strongly with the interests of the science community;
- Assessing early scientific results that seem particularly significant and/or have the potential for transformative science;
- Evaluating whether components of the program are working as intended and are within their predicted operational budget;
- Discussing the possibility of descoping or eliminating lesser-performing components to strengthen financial support for components with the highest scientific potential; and
- Determining if the Pioneer Array should be relocated and, if so, its next location.
Taking the Broader View
OCE’s working model for infrastructure and major facilities does not tend to consider impacts on the overall budget until it reaches Division leadership. For example, the UNOLS RCRV subcommittee is advocating construction of all three vessels (RCRV Subcommittee of the Fleet Improvement Committee, 2014), but the subcommittee was not tasked with weighing possible impacts on the other major infrastructure or on core science. The current system, where each major infrastructure asset is evaluated individually (sometimes with the apparent goal of advocating for particular assets), discourages an integrated assessment. This can be compounded by overly optimistic assumptions about future budgets and a lack of realistic infrastructure cost projections.
OCE program officers, section heads, division directors, and assistant directors are often rotators. Rotators have an invaluable connection to the science community, including the community’s aspirations and their essential role in the peer-review process. However, they may not be fully aware of the long-term history and future uncertainties of the federal budget cycle, and they may not be present at NSF for the consequences of their decisions. Additional training on NSF budget and planning processes, including the history of major programs, could assist rotators in senior management positions.
OCE would benefit from external oversight of its infrastructure by a committee whose function would be to recommend overall priorities in an integrated manner. The committee could function under AC-GEO or be separate; however, it would need expertise from professionals versed in budgeting and strategic planning, not just from ocean sciences and academia. This group of experts could also assist in ensuring that initial cost estimates for new infrastructure or those for refits or expansions of existing facilities are realistic with projected requirements in order to keep operational costs in check over a project’s lifetime.
This idea echoes the need for coordinated strategic planning set forth in Critical Infrastructure for Ocean Research and Societal Needs in 2030 (NRC, 2011), which notes that “[i]n order to establish and continuously adapt a strategic plan for ocean infrastructure planning, funding agencies need to ensure that the resources and expertise are in place
to carry out a systematic prioritization process. Expertise that is required for this type of planning includes both scientists and people trained in economics of information, valuation, and investment analysis under uncertainty.”
Recommendation 6: Program reviews for OOI, IODP, the academic research fleet, and NDSF should occur periodically (nominally every 3-5 years, with a 10-year outlook) and should be considered within the context of the broader OCE budget environment, rather than independently. OCE should consider exit strategies for major acquisitions if funding is insufficient. OCE should seek periodic community input to help ensure infrastructure investments align with the science priorities.
Recommendation 7: OCE should initiate a high-level standing infrastructure oversight committee to evaluate the entire portfolio of OCE-supported infrastructure and facilities and to recommend proposed changes. The outlook should be for at least 10 years and should include discussion of the entire life cycle of construction, operations and maintenance, decommissioning, and recapitalization. Committee membership should include professionals experienced in long-range budgeting and strategic planning.
The intent of the above recommendation is not to duplicate functions of the individual committees advising OOI, IODP, the fleet, and NDSF, but rather to provide broad oversight of the full portfolio of major infrastructure with a particular focus on the costs of construction, maintenance, and operations in relation to the science priorities.
Opportunities for Collaboration and Partnerships
As noted throughout this report, OCE does not and cannot sustain exciting and innovative ocean research on its own. Sustained and effective partnerships within and between NSF divisions, between NSF and other federal agencies, with public and private sectors, and as part of international programs are needed to fully realize the range of opportunities in the next decade and beyond. Ocean science research accomplishments in the past depended strongly on the capabilities of multiple federal agencies (particularly the U.S. Navy) and international initiatives, as well as NSF’s continued funding and interest. Pursuit of the decadal science questions will continue to require collaborations that can reach beyond annual funding cycles to achieve transformative research and scientific breakthroughs, even as the priorities of individual agency missions evolve. History has shown that these partnerships work best when they are based on trust, have credibility among agency staff (working level and senior management) and the community, and are seen to be in the interest of all parties.
NSF’s participation in the Subcommittee on Ocean Science and Technology (SOST), especially the Interagency Working Group on Facilities and Infrastructure (IWG-FI) and the Interagency Working Group on Ocean Partnerships (IWG-OP), is an excellent vehicle to drive effective infrastructure partnerships among the agencies. OCE program managers can be tasked with implementation of recommendations from the SOST. Through IWG-FI, agencies can avoid duplication of effort and encourage the shared use of assets; through IWG-OP, agencies can find and be supportive of mutual research interests. Additionally, just as UNOLS provides effective cost-sharing strategies to manage the academic research fleet, perhaps a similar management structure could maximize the use of OOI, IODP, and other NSF-supported infrastructure across agencies, academic institutions, internationally, and potentially with the private sector.
An outstanding example of interagency and international cooperation is the Argo program (described in Box 1-1), in terms of both how the program was developed and how the data are used for both research and operations. Another is the Climate Variability & Predictability (CLIVAR) program, which began in 1997 and had initial support from U.S. agencies including NOAA, NSF, ONR, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Department of Energy. U.S. CLIVAR emphasizes themes of decadal variability, climate extremes, polar climate, and ocean carbon/biogeochemistry and contributes to the international CLIVAR project that is organized under the World Climate Research Program. Finally, there is the opportunity provided by Future Earth, described in Box 2-1. OCE might consider how it can best contribute to programs like Future Earth, which will need coordination across NSF Directorates, including its International Science and Engineering Section.
Recommendation 8: The committee encourages OCE to expand its partnership capabilities with other federal agencies, international programs, and other sectors. Such partnerships can maximize the value of both research and infrastructure investments and may help spread the costs of major ocean research infrastructure beyond OCE.
The current focus on budget constraints faced by NSF and OCE does not preclude a bright future for the ocean sciences. There remain many compelling science questions to be answered, a need for new knowledge to solve important societal problems, and the promise of groundbreaking discoveries that inspire future generations. Research in ocean sciences is crucial to addressing some of the greatest challenges of our time. It is a national imperative to determine how the ocean and climate system will respond to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide and how coastal communities will respond to sea level rise and pollutants. The public is becoming more aware of the ocean’s role in their lives as an
economic force and a cultural asset, and the desire for ocean stewardship will undoubtedly encourage additional interest and possible investment in ocean research over time.
The past decade has also seen remarkable advances in the field. Research that transcends the divides of traditional disciplines has led to some of the most significant emerging questions in ocean sciences today. Technological innovations have transformed the ocean sciences, revealing the promise of groundbreaking new technologies that enable observation and measurement in novel, cost-effective, and energy-efficient ways. Our ability to answer complex questions has grown tremendously with these developments and will continue to expand in the decades to come.
Attaining the visionary goals presented at the beginning of this report will require a diverse and talented group of researchers; rapid adoption of new technologies to measure the ocean in novel and cost-effective ways; elimination of the barriers to interdisciplinary and interagency research; enhancement of cost-shared partnerships across funding agencies, national borders, and sectors; and innovative educational programs that are aligned with this vision. The committee strongly believes that the ocean sciences community (including researchers and program managers) are prepared to strategically meet these challenges and emerge with an even more innovative and compelling future for the ocean sciences.
NRC (National Research Council). 2011. Critical Infrastructure for Ocean Research and Societal Needs in 2030. The National Academies Press, Washington, DC.
RCRV (Regional Class Research Vessel) Subcommittee of the Fleet Improvement Committee. 2014. Number of Regional Class Research Vessels (RCRV). [Memorandum to Bauke Houtman (NSF), July 18]. University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System, Narragansett, RI.
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