Published online 30 April 2008 | 453, 7 (2008) | doi:10.1038/453007a

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US ocean-research projects in dire economic straits

Multiple marine projects under threat from cash squeeze.

The costly RV Marcus Langseth set off on her first research cruise in February.The costly RV Marcus Langseth set off on her first research cruise in February.LAMONT-DOHERTY EARTH OBSERVATORY

America's fleet of research ships is struggling in financial doldrums threatening marine projects around the globe. The number of vessels is shrinking, funding for new vessels is being sidetracked and the forecast is for even fewer ships and higher costs. Already, the annual number of research days at sea has been cut by 20%.

“When the cost of equipment is driving the agenda, that is a death knell for a field,” says geophysicist Marcia McNutt of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, California, who chairs the US research fleet's governing council. “You end up doing what research you can do, instead of what research you should do.”

The fleet is overseen by the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS), a consortium of 61 research institutes. The ships are affiliated to various institutions and provide vital platforms for scientists investigating topics from ocean chemistry and circulation to sea-floor core extractions. Annually, the fleet now provides about 4,000 research days at sea, down from about 5,000 before 2000, UNOLS officials say.

The UNOLS receives US$80 million a year for fleet operation directly from the federal budget. This year, the funds have been supplemented by money from a private foundation and a Saudi university. Research teams apply to funding agencies, such as the US National Science Foundation (NSF), for individual scientific cruises — ship time for a deep-sea cruise runs at about $50,000 per day.

There are 23 ships currently in service, varying from regional vessels for near-coast studies to oceanic cruisers. In 2002, there were 27 ships. By 2017, 15 ships are projected, with only 11 by 2025 — at which time the global vessels would be down to three from today's six.

It takes years to design and refit or build a ship. For more than four years, the NSF, which funds most ship projects, has been planning to build a $123 million Alaska-region research ship to replace a decommissioned vessel. But there is no ship funding in the NSF budget that is now before Congress — and long-term funding is unknown.

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The ship RV <i>Marcus Langseth</i>, which will be the first ship to carry out three-dimensional models of the undersea crust, offers an example of the challenges faced. The newly rebuilt <i>Langseth</i> undertook her first research cruise in February after long delays and vast cost-overruns, involving difficulties securing high-tech crew members who are also sought by oil and gas companies, and costly problems operating its seismic system for visualizing seafloor formations. NSF officials say an audit is underway on the Langseth project, where costs at a Nova Scotia shipyard were $600,000 above the bid of $4.4 million for refitting. A worldwide lack of available shipyard space means that costly delays are systemic in the shipbuilding industry.

The <i>JOIDES Resolution</i>, a core-drilling vessel, is another delayed ship. It was to have been rebuilt by the end of 2007, but now isn't expected to be ready until at least August. The Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, an international partnership of scientists and research institutions that operates the ship, says the Singapore shipyard doing the refit will consume all contingency funds in the $32 million retrofit budget, funded by the NSF. 

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