A group of the United States' top ocean specialists this week issued a 'report card' on how the government is treating the sea. And if President George W. Bush had brought home in his school days the grades he received from that exercise, his mother would not have been impressed. The worst grade of all — an F for 'fail' — was for new funding of ocean programmes.

But just before the report was released on 30 January, Bush officials declared that the president will request $143 million more for the oceans in his 2008 budget than in 2007. Of this, $80 million will be for research, with focuses on an ocean monitoring network, comparative analysis of marine ecosystems, and research on the water circulation in the Atlantic.

Commerce secretary Carlos Gutierrez introduces Bush's plan to investigate the deep. Credit: DEPT OF COMMERCE

The Bush administration's announcement also listed some legislative goals for the year. These included acceding to the United Nations Law of the Sea and passing specific authorizing legislation for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the main ocean-research agency, to increase its political heft.

Carlos Gutierrez, head of the commerce department of which NOAA is part, says the plan will “sharpen our focus and expand our knowledge of our oceans, which is incredibly important for everything we do in the future”.

But most years, NOAA gets far more money from Congress than the president requests. So critics of Bush were quick to dismiss the announcement's significance.

“The president's 2007 request provided $300 million less for ocean, coastal and Great Lakes programmes in research and resource management at NOAA than Congress gave the agency in 2006,” says Bart Gordon (Democrat, Tennessee), chair of the House Committee on Science and Technology. “While this year's budget request is an improvement, I suspect this is still disappointing news to those who want to see more attention paid to ocean and coastal issues.”

James Watkins, chair of the congressionally mandated Commission on Ocean Policy, which in 2004 recommended a far-reaching effort to bolster US ocean research, is also unconvinced. “I have been around this town for 50 years and I have always been a bit leery of rhetoric versus reality when it comes to the budget,” he says of Bush's plan for ocean research. “We need $750 million to get this kick-started — that's one day in Iraq.”

Gerald Leape, vice-president for marine conservation at the National Environmental Trust in Washington DC, says he is “sceptical” about the Bush plan, but is generally hopeful about the budgetary outlook for ocean research this year.