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Caribbean Marine Research Centers: Past and Future
Michael Lombardi
Recent calls from the science community to repurpose the soon-to-close Guantanamo Bay Detention Center in Cuba as a Caribbean marine research center sounds good in principle, but gives rebirth to the question that the U.S. government has not yet addressed: why our last Caribbean marine research center failed.

Through my own professional reflection recently, it dawned on me that I’ve been a part of the ebb and flow of all too many marine research and technology programs. It is always the same recurring problems that lead us to failure. At some point, lessons need to be learned as to why, when the going gets good, things still manage to fall apart.

A perfect example is the rise and fall of NOAA’s Caribbean Marine Research Center on Lee Stocking Island, Bahamas, opened in the mid-1980s. Having first visited Lee Stocking in the late 1990s, it quickly became a home away from home where I spent several years involved in a number of exciting research programs involving U.S. Naval imaging systems, chemical ecology, fluorescent protein discovery, cave exploration, excavating stromatolites and coral reef early warning systems of bleaching events, just to name a few. The research was exciting and inspiring, but local support was always fraught with problems.

From its founding to its closing in 2005, the facility was subsidized with U.S. federal funding via the NOAA Undersea Research Program (NURP). Millions of dollars were spent to make the Lee Stocking Island facilities accommodating for marine research, and they were, with support leveraged for significant programs by other agencies, including the U.S. Office of Naval Research, National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and others.

Of course, I’m writing this piece because, despite this fantastic center of excellence having existed for decades, it is no longer there today. What was the downfall? The problem had to do with the fact that this center was never successfully leveraged with matching equitable investments from the private sector to reach a sustainable business model.

Science is financially consumptive by nature and its high risk may not offer a hard return on investment. However, it can be leveraged for stakeholder investments with value-added directives. In the years prior to its shutdown, Lee Stocking Island did not emphasize its value-added research.

Today, NURP is gone, Lee Stocking Island has been sold to a private developer, millions of dollars of U.S. tax dollars have vaporized, and almost a half century of true legacy research has been abandoned. I was there the day the phone call was received that NURP (i.e., the federal government) was no longer going to subsidize its Caribbean Marine Research Center. It was a gut-wrenching day.

Lee Stocking Island was originally procured privately by businessman John Perry Jr. back in the 1950s. Perry had an affinity for ocean exploration and marine technology and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Ed Link, who invented pioneering technology in oceanography, aeronautics and navigation. Perry’s work with others on manned submersibles and underwater habitats weighed heavily on the formation of the United States’ NURP program, and, certainly in the early days, this entrepreneurship was valued for developing important national programs. The original work on Lee Stocking focused on research that had the potential for scalable enterprise: renewable energy, aquaculture and new diving technology.

Over time, this vision of research and enterprise was lost—along with the business insights behind the vision. Government resources were squandered into the all-too-consumptive downward spiral of our great government bureaucracy. The result is that today there is no cornerstone for a Caribbean marine research center that the U.S. can proudly hang its hat on—but there could have been.

Lee Stocking Island is now in developers’ hands, and its more than 50 years of scientific productivity now has no chance of being capitalized upon. It is truly a shame. Following the imminent shutdown of NURP in 2005, all that was left on Lee Stocking of any value was the treasure trove of relic parts and pieces of one-man submarines, diving bells, fuel cells, solar arrays and component parts for sustainable aquaculture facilities.

Now, I’d like nothing more than to see Guantanamo repurposed into a new Caribbean Marine Research Center, but let’s learn from the failures of the recent past first. A government subsidy should be exactly that: a subsidy, and only a subsidy. Regional investors and stakeholders need to embrace the research center for it to really work, and a business model needs to be in place that can generate revenues. As I’ve pointed out continually in my own work, not-for-profit does not have to mean not-in-business. Revenue generation is necessary to continue with financing important research.

Handing over abandoned government infrastructure to the science community sounds like a good opportunity, but that is a very small piece of the puzzle. We had that once, and frankly, we blew it. We didn’t get the finances right. I do believe we’re in a better place today compared to 10 years ago when it all collapsed. The idea of social enterprise is becoming more deeply embedded within society and culture and within the science community.

Starting from scratch in Gitmo is going to be difficult. It can be done, however—with a clear vision, strong leadership and an economic strategy that is able to capitalize on the science and technology bridge that spans academia and industry.

Michael Lombardi is a diving technologist, author, entrepreneur and explorer. He was a diving safety officer for NOAA’s Caribbean Marine Research Center and has championed new diving technology for use in the scientific and industrial sectors, with grants from the National Geographic Society. He promotes “the life aquatic” through his nonprofit, Ocean Opportunity Inc., www.oceanopportunity.com.


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