Last week, depending on your point of view, film director James Cameron either made history or reached a new low. In descending to the deepest part of the ocean, Cameron became the first human to make a solo visit to the Challenger Deep, nearly 11 kilometres from the surface. He is only the third person ever to make such a dive (see Nature; 2012).

Cameron's mission mostly failed in its scientific ambition to recover samples. Equipment failure allowed his submersible to bring back just one piece of sediment and no rocks. But his team has pledged to make further dives, and although there may be no large creatures lurking at that depth, the opportunity to analyse the microorganisms likely to be found in the sediment is unprecedented.

Congratulations flooded in from around the world, many from marine scientists. Among those to send good wishes was the UK National Oceanography Centre (NOC).

But a week that started brightly for the field ended less well. Although Cameron was inspiring the next generation of marine scientists on Monday, by Wednesday news was reaching Nature that the NOC was shedding nearly one-quarter of its scientific staff, based at sites in Southampton and Liverpool (see Nature; 2012).

This is partly a response to Britain's financial woes, which have kept down or cut budgets at the country's research funding councils in recent years. But the centre's problems have been exacerbated by the stance of the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) — which provides most of the NOC's funding and has decided to “gradually shift the balance of science funding from long-term survey, monitoring and infrastructure such as ships towards front-line, competitively awarded, strategic environmental research”, it said in a statement.

The upshot is that 35 posts are to be lost in the NOC's science section, as the centre attempts to make savings of £3.5 million (US$5.6 million) a year on its £45-million annual budget.

Ocean researchers around the world have been devastated by the news of the cutbacks, which jeopardize a number of international collaborations in areas such as climate and ocean modelling.

NERC insists that the NOC will still be a major player in the field, albeit “with a somewhat leaner, but even more highly competitive scientific team”. But researchers fear that this focus will threaten projects that gestate slowly, which have until now been highly valued.

In the United States, too, researchers have reason to fret. Budget negotiations can be tortuous, with nothing set in stone until the final vote, but there is growing concern about the future of the National Undersea Research Program (NURP). The programme, run by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), hosts much of the country's research fleet of scientific submersibles. Other NOAA programmes are also under scrutiny.

When the costs of high-profile glamour projects such as manned space flight draw criticism, supporters often say that their public-engagement value offsets mission costs. With Cameron's dive, science got a freebie. No government funds that could have gone to austerity-hit research labs were used: this was one man doing what he wanted with his own money. Others with similar means are set to follow Cameron into the deep, and wealthy individuals are likely to reach space under their own steam and on their own terms in the near future.

But will science be well placed to exploit the massive appeal of Cameron's dive and the new attention that will be given to the ocean depths? Scientists have sent unmanned vehicles to the Challenger Deep between the manned mission in 1960 and last week's visit. Those trips were made with kit that relies on the skill and dedication of scientists working for programmes such as NURP and the NOC. While Cameron celebrates, ocean science slips a little further out of reach for everyone else.