Blueprint for Ocean Science and Policy

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Publication date: 
6 July 2004

"Insufficient ocean science funding in the United States, combined with increased capacity in other nations, has lessened U.S. pre-eminence in ocean research, exploration, and technology development. Chronic under-investment has left much of our ocean-related scientific infrastructure in woefully poor condition." - The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy

A presidentially-appointed commission, after a multi-year intensive review of the nation's ocean policies and programs, finds that "the federal investment in ocean and coastal research must be significantly increased to at least double today's $650 million annual investment, over the next five years. Additional investments in technology development and ocean exploration are also needed." This is one of the conclusions in the preliminary report of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, a 16-member bipartisan panel chaired by Admiral James D. Watkins. The commission also recommends that an Integrated Ocean Observing System be implemented, and that NASA transfer operation of Earth-observing satellites to NOAA. The commission took testimony and comments from hundreds of people in the first comprehensive review of the nation's ocean policies in over 30 years, and found that "the message was clear: major changes are urgently needed." The report continues, "While new scientific understanding has taught us that natural systems are complex and interconnected, our decision-making and management systems have not been updated to address that complexity and interconnectedness. Better approaches and tools are also needed to gather data to understand the complex marine environment. Perhaps most important, people must understand the role the oceans have on their lives and livelihoods and the impacts they themselves have on the oceans."

The committee's preliminary report, issued in April, runs nearly 400 pages plus appendices, and is available at It offers 198 specific recommendations, including establishment of a cabinet-level National Ocean Council and a Presidential Council of Advisors on Ocean Policy, integrated systems for data-gathering and analysis, and better coordination among federal, state, local, territorial and tribal entities. According to the report, the commission's recommendations are "based upon three fundamental and cross-cutting themes: (1) creating a new national ocean policy framework to improve decision-making; (2) strengthening science and generating high-quality, accessible information to inform decision makers; and (3) enhancing ocean education to instill future leaders and informed citizens with a stewardship ethic."

Four chapters of the report (Chapters 25 through 28) address science and technology issues. The report points out that comprehensive scientific information is vital for policy makers, yet despite recent progress, "the ocean remains one of the least explored and understood environments on the planet." The commission believes that "increases in funding, changes in grant practices, and the establishment of new partnerships are all essential to maximize the national research enterprise." The science and technology recommendations will be summarized in more detail in FYI #91.

In response, House Science Committee Vice Chairman Vern Ehlers (R-MI) has already introduced both his own version of a NOAA authorization act (H.R. 4546), and a second version proposed by the Administration (H.R. 4607). Witnesses at a May 5 Science Committee hearing commended the commission's effort as "comprehensive and visionary," an "enormous achievement," and "a near-miracle." In general, they gave enthusiastic support to the commission's recommendations. However, they voiced some reservations, including concerns that a new White House National Ocean Council might not be sufficient to coordinate and guide what was referred to as the "fragmentation" and "patchwork" of federal ocean-related programs; that substantial new funding would be necessary for successful implementation of the recommendations; and that concentrating too many responsibilities within NOAA (including too-rapid transfer of responsibilities for Earth-observing satellite operations) might lead to a "fragile," less-robust system and to the neglect of other NOAA activities. "I don't think anyone can disagree with the basic thrust of the report," said Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), but he, too, questioned some of the recommendations and warned that budgetary realities will not allow Congress to "do everything you want." To his query about the top funding priority, the most common witness response was implementation of an Integrated Ocean Observing System.

The commission is currently reviewing comments on its preliminary report. Submission of the final report to the President and Congress is expected sometime this summer, but no release date has yet been set.

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