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January 2013 Issue

Prioritizing Ocean Sciences in A Challenging Funding Environment

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

While 2012 centered on the U.S. presidential election, it also involved much more. The impact of hurricanes Isaac and Sandy clearly showed the continued need for a better understanding of how the ocean works and its influence on the economy and the national welfare. The Consortium for Ocean Leadership channeled its energy into this mission, focusing on how the advancement of ocean science and technology through discovery, understanding and action can enhance national goals.

Congressional Gridlock
Overall, 2012 was a year of much rhetoric with little legislative accomplishments by Congress.

In March, I testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies on the importance of ocean science and university-based research to the nation as we become more reliant upon the ocean for our national defense, food and economic security. I also discussed the opportunity to move the design and procurement responsibilities for the U.S. earth-observing satellites from NOAA to NASA. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved such a transfer and reinvested $117 million in cost savings back into NOAA's wet-side programs (including research), which had been cut in recent years to help pay NOAA's satellite missions.

Despite the House and Senate appropriators completing their work early in 2012, Congress was unable to pass a single spending bill before the end of the fiscal year. Consequently, Congress passed a continuing resolution to keep the federal agencies working through March 2013 at present-year funding levels.

However, even with the focus on the elections and budget gridlock, there were a few notable congressional actions in 2012. The Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourism Opportunities and Revived Economies (RESTORE) Act, which reinvests 80 percent of the Clean Water Act fines generated from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill back into the Gulf of Mexico region for ecological and economic restoration, was included as an amendment to a package of transportation, student loans and flood-insurance bills. The RESTORE Act sets aside 5 percent of funds for research, monitoring, observation and technology programs. Given the tight fiscal climate, the ability to reinvest these funds into the gulf after the Deepwater Horizon tragedy was welcome news. Unfortunately, the final bill did not include the National Endowment for the Ocean, which was proposed to take a portion of the interest generated from the Clean Water Act fines to establish an endowment to promote the protection and conservation of the ocean and Great Lakes. Ocean Leadership is hopeful it will be attached to an energy bill in 2013 as it could provide millions of dollars in the first year alone for research and restoration in the oceans, coasts and Great Lakes.

Another focal point for the ocean in 2012 was the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Discussion on the treaty started out early in the year when it was a key subject at a Pentagon dinner hosted by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, a former trustee of Ocean Leadership. It continued to be a focus of many Congressional hearings throughout the year. However, it has not yet passed the Senate.

Ocean Science Newsmakers
Sadly, the ocean community lost one of its icons in 2012, Adm. James D. Watkins. In honor of the admiral, who dedicated so much of his life to public service and had such a remarkable influence on ocean policy, Ocean Leadership created the Admiral James D. Watkins Award. The award recognizes those who have distinguished themselves as champions of ocean science through sponsorship of legislation, development of sound ocean policy or promotion of federal investment to advance oceanography.

In 2012, Ocean Leadership honored the co-chairs and honorary co-chairs of the newly created Senate Oceans Caucus with Watkins awards: Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).

Looking to 2013
Post-presidential election, the lame-duck congressional session that was convened will likely have a tremendous influence on the future of ocean science. The ability of Congress and the president to reach a budget deficit deal and avert the fiscal cliff will determine whether agencies see substantial budget cuts or continued increase in research support. At the time this article was written, there appeared to be insufficient time to reach a major budget compromise before the end of the year, so a short-term deal seemed likely to allow for a grand bargain to be negotiated in 2013.

One thing remains clear: The ocean science community will have significant challenges to face in the coming year. Although the federal political leadership will remain essentially the same, the $16 trillion deficit is not going away quickly. Therefore, the federal agencies and legislators will need to prioritize for investments in science, including ocean research and education.

Ocean Leadership will continue to articulate our priorities to these decision makers and stress the importance of the entire science enterprise working together to protect federal research and education funds to ensure that science is recognized as of the utmost importance to the future of the U.S.

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