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Drill often, drill deep

Splice the mainbrace: the greatest scientific ocean-drilling vessel ever built is going to sea.

After 18 years, 1,800 boreholes, some 36,000 cores and a host of impressive scientific discoveries, the international Ocean Drilling Program came to a close in 2003. Its successor, the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP), has hired some ships for drilling expeditions to sites of scientific importance, but has been waiting for a new flagship before going full steam ahead. The wait is now over. This week marks the research debut of the mammoth Japanese research vessel Chikyu (see News Feature, page 278). Japan has spared no expense in providing its riser-protected drilling pipe, its elaborate laboratories, its cushy cabins and all the other amenities a world-travelling scientist at sea might need. There is unlikely to be a research drilling ship in the near, or not-so-near, future to match it.

The ship's future will not be plain sailing, though, unless both Japan and the international community learn from the past. Japan is not the only country to plop down money for a big science project without providing the resources — especially the human resources — to make best use of it. But this it has done, and its government must now cultivate scientists who can use Chikyu to answer big questions in creative and effective ways. Japanese researchers will be competing with the international community for the IODP funding pot, and if they wish to play a leading role aboard Chikyu they must have the type of high-calibre proposals that will win respect in the international arena. This may not be easy: at Japan's sole academic oceanographic institution — the Ocean Research Institute at Tokyo University — the number of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows has dropped dramatically over the past five years. Japan's science ministry needs to support new faculty positions, new postdoctoral positions, more graduate students and more positions for visiting Earth scientists from abroad.

And as magnificent as it is, Chikyu cannot do everything that the IODP needs done. The programme has two other 'pillars' that have run into problems. The US-led contribution is a vessel meant to complement Chikyu, but this veteran of the Ocean Drilling Program, JOIDES Resolution, continues to languish at a dock in Singapore because of lack of funding and skilled workers to refurbish it. European organizers of the third pillar — mission-specific platforms — must cope with the fact that the oil industry's appetite for ships and staff leaves little capacity for equipment and staffing for scientific expeditions. The IODP has struggled just to rent mission-specific platforms for individual cruises, even though member countries have paid their dues and invested the time of their leading scientists.

A downturn in the oil price after investment in new fields might alleviate those problems by reducing the incentives for exploration (although don't bet on it). Even if it does, though, and especially if it doesn't, IODP managers must do what they can to get JOIDES Resolution refitted and back at sea. It would be a shame if, after all the scientific and diplomatic work that has gone into the exemplary international setting up of the IODP, the efforts ended up wasted by the budgetary stress of an oil crisis that was not predicted when the IODP started its planning. The launch of Chikyu should serve as a wake-up call for scientists, mission planners, and policymakers to redouble their efforts to keep this exciting programme moving in the right direction. Onwards and downwards!

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Drill often, drill deep. Nature 449, 260 (2007).

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