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January 2012 Issue

Ocean Science Rising Above Budget Battles

By Robert B. Gagosian
President and CEO
The Consortium for Ocean Leadership


This past year was certainly an unusual one. The United States faced—and is still facing—its biggest budget crisis in a generation, brought on by a sagging economy and more than $14 trillion in debt. We also dealt with the repercussions of the biggest oil spill in U.S. history, which, interestingly enough, could actually provide significant opportunities for ocean science.

All in all, it was quite the roller-coaster ride for science funding in this country. From the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster to the creation of a Senate Oceans Caucus to a crippled federal budget process, the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, with its nine programs and 99 members, spent the year determined to keep ocean science in the forefront of the debates consuming Washington, D.C.

Budget Battles
We knew we would be facing a tough budget environment when Congress reconvened last January, and 2011 was a steep uphill battle as all aspects of the federal budget were in jeopardy. From narrowly avoiding government shutdowns to intense debt ceiling debates, science funding has been on a bumpy ride. Ocean Leadership continued to advocate for science to be a top priority in the budget given the important role it plays in fueling our economy and staying competitive in the global marketplace.

Overall, both of President Barack Obama's federal budget requests for fiscal years 2011 and 2012 maintained a strong commitment to investing in scientific research. But with a heavy deficit, the initially large proposed increases were soon deemed unacceptable by Congress. The political climate remained tense as the federal debt ceiling debates heightened during the summer.

Amidst all of this, I met with a number of members of congress and their staff, emphasizing the importance of investment in ocean science in driving innovation. Even with the economic situation, Ocean Leadership is striving to shape the future of ocean science and technology. It is essential that we heighten the level of our proactivity.

In these unparalleled times, the ocean science community has to be realistic about its budget climate, and in turn, look for more efficient and collaborative ways of doing research and managing infrastructure. If we partner across disciplines and programs, we will be more successful in addressing the highest priority ocean science questions. The only certainty for funding is that the budget clashes of 2011 are the new norm.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Senate Ocean Caucus co-chairs, take the podium at the Senate Oceans Caucus Inaugural Reception in September in Washington, D.C.

Continuing Research on Deepwater Horizon
The presence of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, the largest oil spill in United States history, still looms, not only in the field of ocean science but within our entire nation. Last January, the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling released its final report, which examined the factors that led to the oil spill and provided criticisms of the federal response. The 2011 research, restoration and recovery efforts for the gulf are of the upmost importance to the resurgence of this area.

Immediately following the spill, Ocean Leadership and its members became involved in the scientific response by inviting ocean experts to a meeting at the EPA in May 2010. We then hosted the first oil spill science symposium, the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Scientific Symposium, which featured more than 200 academic and federal researchers, in early June 2010 at Louisiana State University. These meetings were ultimately a catalyst in identifying the major science and intellectual themes that were incorporated into BP's Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GRI).

The GRI is a 10-year, $500 million science program funded by BP to study the effects of the gulf oil spill and the possible associated impacts on the environment and public health. The results of this research will ultimately improve our ability to understand and mitigate the impacts of possible future oil spills. The GRI is led by an independent research board of 20 scientists, with half of the board appointed by BP and half appointed by gulf state governors, and is chaired by former National Science Foundation Direct'or Rita Colwell. The initiative is administered through a collaboration led by the Gulf of Mexico Alliance and supported by Ocean Leadership and the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies.

In the past year, the GRI issued three requests for proposals to fund research consortia and individual investigators, and to help continue essential summer sampling efforts. Altogether, these proposals represent more than $130 million in research funds over the next three years.

Landmark Ocean Accomplishments
Despite the budget chaos in Washington, Ocean Leadership still managed to play a significant role in some important achievements associated with ocean issues.

In February, Ocean Leadership hosted the Ocean and Coastal Science Community Welcome Reception to celebrate the beginning of the 112th Congress. The reception, attended by more than 200 key ocean scientists, environmentalists and policymakers, provided a forum for those interested in ocean and coastal issues to interact with members of Congress and the executive branch.

In recognition of the importance of oceans, coasts and the Great Lakes, Obama designated June as National Oceans Month. This is a welcome addition to the annual World Oceans Day and provides the ocean community with a larger window of focus on ocean priorities.

A significant milestone for ocean science this year occurred when 18 senators established the first-ever Senate Oceans Caucus to increase awareness of the issues facing our oceans and coasts. Ocean Leadership was a part of the press conference announcing the caucus formation and also organized and co-sponsored a reception honoring the Senate Oceans Caucus Inauguration, demonstrating its support for this bipartisan group and the connection between the oceans and the future of our country.

Valuable progress was made on the legislation concerning the Clean Water Act penalties to be paid by BP resulting from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The RESTORE Act of 2011 (Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourism Opportunities and Revived Economy of the Gulf Coast Act of 2011) is being considered by both the House and the Senate to direct fines toward funding research and monitoring of the gulf, as well as establishing a national endowment for the oceans. Water Act fines may be as much as $20 billion, so even a small percentage of that would go a long way in advancing the state of knowledge in the gulf and helping inform the restoration efforts.

Looking to 2012
We are clearly in a difficult federal budget environment, one that will probably last for several years. However, if we focus on the key ocean research priorities and consider partnering in new and unique ways, I am convinced that substantial progress can be made with this country's ocean science, infrastructure and education initiatives.

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