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Suggested Citation:"Introduction." National Research Council. 2015. Sea Change: 2015-2025 Decadal Survey of Ocean Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21655.


We envision a future in which our understanding of the world ocean, national coasts, coastal watersheds, and Great Lakes protects lives, enriches livelihoods, and enhances quality of life. At the same time, the research we undertake will help ensure the health and sustainability of our ocean ecosystem for years to come.

—Charting the Course for Ocean Science for the United States for the Next Decade:
An Ocean Research Priorities Plan and Implementation Strategy
(NSTC Joint Subcommitte on Ocean Science and Technology, 2007)

The ocean has been integral to the history of the United States—its national security, its economic strength, and the well-being and intellectual growth of its people. The nation has a long sea-faring history, from early European explorers, generations of fishermen, and sailors of the merchant marine and Navy. Ocean science has underlain the success of oceangoing enterprises, such as enhancing the speed and efficiency of trans-Atlantic trade through mapping ocean currents (work begun by Benjamin Franklin); supporting expeditions to Antarctica and the Arctic; observing and modeling water column properties to outmaneuver Soviet submarines during the Cold War; and assessing the abundance and dynamics of fish stocks to manage the nation’s living marine resources. In addition to these practical applications, students, poets, and artists have been inspired by the mystery, the beauty, and the bounty of the sea. With the past as prologue, this report outlines strategic directions to ensure a strong future for the ocean sciences and, thus, for the nation and its people. Like a ship maneuvering through a narrow channel, the field of ocean science requires careful course adjustments to be well positioned for the next decade. With fiscal discipline and wise research investments now, the next decade and beyond could be a time of opportunity and progress in ocean science, with advances that benefit the social and economic goals of not only the nation, but also the world.


Starting with the International Geophysical Year of 1957-1958, and maturing during the International Decade of Ocean Exploration (1970s), the National Science Foundation (NSF) has become the principal federal agency funding basic ocean science research at academic institutions (NRC, 2000). Until the late 1960s, the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR) had been the main source of funding for academic oceanographers; the exception was biological oceanography, which has long received support from NSF and the Department of Energy. ONR still plays a vital role in oceanographic research, particularly in the development of new technologies and funding for academic research vessels. However, in the past few decades NSF has assumed a larger role both in the support of basic oceanographic research and in the provision of oceanographic facilities and support for new technologies. While other federal agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration play essential roles in ocean science advances, especially in support for monitoring and remote sensing facilities, NSF has become the primary funding agency for the U.S. academic oceanography research community.

The emergence of NSF as the prime funder of academic oceanographic research has been accompanied by an impressive expansion in the capabilities of sea-based platforms ranging from ships to autonomous sensors. These innovations have advanced our understanding of the ocean in unforeseen ways. Some examples of the advances achieved during just the past decade are highlighted in the next chapter.

Ocean science relies on infrastructure and technology to provide access to the ocean and to enable essential observations of key phenomena. While operating infrastructure is part of the cost of doing business in oceanography, it needs to be balanced against the cost of supporting scientists, their

Suggested Citation:"Introduction." National Research Council. 2015. Sea Change: 2015-2025 Decadal Survey of Ocean Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21655.

research, and training of their students and technical staff. For the purpose of this report, a “healthy balance” between the two is qualitatively defined as supporting sufficient infrastructure to provide access to the ocean and advance the science while maintaining sufficient funds for scientists and trainees to conduct research and provide value for the infrastructure investment.

The issue today—and a strong motivation for this report—is the growing community and agency concern that these two portfolio elements are not in balance and that the facilities are disproportionately consuming funds and leaving insufficient funding for scientists and research activities. How to determine, achieve, and maintain the correct balance between infrastructure and research is a great challenge and needs to be periodically evaluated as the community and technologies evolve. This will enable us to make the course corrections necessary for steering ocean sciences toward a vibrant future.

To help guide future investments in ocean sciences, NSF has sought community input on long-range research priorities and strategies for optimizing investments. Other disciplines within NSF and other federal agencies have conducted decadal surveys for strategic guidance on research priorities to maximize the effective use of limited resources. Although previous community-based efforts developed priorities for various segments of the ocean sciences, they were not explicitly constrained by resource availability or trade-offs among competing investments and hence did not address the broader issue of how to balance the full portfolio of NSF’s ocean research investments when constrained by realistic budget scenarios and funding uncertainties.

In 2013, NSF’s Division of Ocean Sciences (OCE) asked the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Ocean Studies Board to undertake a decadal survey of ocean sciences to provide guidance from the ocean sciences community on research and infrastructure priorities for the coming decade. The request was preceded by extensive discussions between OCE and the Ocean Studies Board and consultation with members of the ocean sciences community, including other federal agencies.

As stipulated by NSF, the goal for this decadal survey is to provide a community-based, regularly recurring approach to the visioning and setting of NSF-funded research priorities in the ocean sciences within the context of likely available resources. The research portfolio includes investments in infrastructure, individual investigator-based science, multi-investigator large research programs, and cross-directorate initiatives like NSF’s Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability (SEES). Infrastructure includes the academic fleet (surface and submersible platforms), ocean drilling platforms, ocean observing sensors and platforms, major shared-use instrumentation, cyberinfrastructure, and the development of new technological innovations. The geographic context includes all oceans of the world including polar regions, the seafloor, estuaries, the coastal zone, and the Great Lakes. Although this report focused primarily on OCE, other directorates as well as other divisions within the Directorate for Geosciences that support ocean sciences research were included. To place the NSF portfolio in the context of the full federal investment in ocean science, NSF asked for a consideration of the priorities and investments of other federal agencies in ocean sciences to identify potential areas for cooperation and collaboration. The full statement of task is provided in Box I-1.


The Committee on Guidance for NSF on National Ocean Science Research Priorities: Decadal Survey for Ocean Sciences was convened by the NRC at the request of NSF. Committee members brought to this task a broad spectrum of knowledge and expertise related to ocean sciences; member biographies are provided in Appendix A. During the study, the committee convened five meetings that included information-gathering public sessions and two additional meetings in closed session to develop this report; public meeting agendas are listed in Appendix B. The committee actively sought participation from the ocean sciences community through town halls organized at the 2013 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting (San Francisco, California) and 2014 Ocean Sciences Meeting (Honolulu, Hawaii), roundtables with early career scientists, and a Virtual Town Hall (see Appendix C for the online questionnaire) that provided opportunities for individuals to submit their ideas on ocean priorities for NSF in 2015-2025. In addition, the committee reviewed past reports regarding ocean science priorities and infrastructure, heard presentations from NSF leadership and staff, interviewed representatives of other ocean-related federal agencies, and listened to presentations by scientists involved in infrastructure programs.

Although the contributions of the ocean sciences community have been invaluable in guiding the work of the committee, the conclusions represent the deliberations of its members, who recognize the difficulty of the task and the reality that resolving current budget issues will impact existing programs. The committee focused on the long-term health of the ocean sciences with the goal of restoring a healthy balance to OCE’s funding portfolio to sustain the ocean research enterprise into the future. Looking ahead, the committee developed the following vision for the ocean sciences in the next decade:

The ocean science community will undertake research and pursue discoveries that advance our understanding of the oceans, seafloor, coasts, and their ecosystems; foster stewardship of the ocean; reduce society’s vulnerability to ocean hazards; and nurture and exploit the integration of the disciplines. A diverse and talented community of researchers will develop new technologies to study the ocean in novel and cost-effective

Suggested Citation:"Introduction." National Research Council. 2015. Sea Change: 2015-2025 Decadal Survey of Ocean Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21655.

Statement of Task

The committee for the Decadal Survey of Ocean Sciences 2015 (DSOS) will develop a list of the top ocean science priorities for the next decade in the context of the current state of knowledge, ongoing research activities, and resource availability. The DSOS committee’s report will present a compelling research strategy for increased understanding of the oceans over the decade 2015-2025.

The report will include the following elements:

  1. A review of the current state of knowledge that highlights findings and technologies over the past decade that have advanced our basic understanding of the oceans, driven new discoveries, created new paradigms, or established new societal imperatives. The review should also consider new science and technologies emerging from other disciplines that could be applied to the ocean sciences.
  2. A concise set of compelling, high-level scientific questions that will be central to the ocean sciences over the coming decade and, if answered, could transform our scientific knowledge of the oceans. Prioritization may be derived from relevance to societal benefits, new technological breakthroughs, emerging or underdeveloped yet vital subjects poised for rapid development, or other drivers. The scientific questions and related priorities need not be all inclusive and should be limited to 10 or fewer. The goal is to identify areas of strategic investment with the highest potential payoff.
  3. An analysis of the research infrastructure needed to address the priority research topics or questions. This will include an assessment of the current portfolio of multi-user facilities investments funded by NSF and their operational costs (information to be provided by NSF) as well as proposed new facilities. If new facilities are proposed, the committee will provide a range of estimates for the cost (upper and lower bounds) and include not only construction but also the full life-cycle costs for operations and maintenance. The analysis should also consider capacity to respond to unexpected events.
  4. An analysis of the current portfolio of investments in ocean science programs at NSF with recommendations for changes necessary, if any, to align resources so as to achieve the priorities established in #2. The current portfolio includes programs within the Division of Ocean Sciences and allied program areas (e.g., Polar Programs, Biodiversity) as well as NSF-wide cross-divisional/cross-directorate initiatives that target highly interdisciplinary themes involving the ocean (e.g., SEES).
  5. An identification of opportunities for NSF to complement the capabilities, expertise, and strategic plans of other federal agencies so as to avoid duplication of effort, encourage collaboration and shared use of research assets where appropriate, and maximize the value of NSF investments in the ocean sciences. This will be based on a brief survey of major ocean research programs funded by other federal agencies.

The final report will recommend a strategy to optimize investments that will advance knowledge in the most critical and/or opportune areas of investigation while also continuing to support core disciplinary science and infrastructure. The recommendations of the committee should include guidance on the most effective portfolio of investments achievable at the current funding level that will support both the research infrastructure (#3) and programmatic science (#4) necessary to address the most significant priorities. This should include assessing trade-offs among options and identifying potential cost-saving mechanisms; assessing the impact of new initiatives and/or modification of existing programs on the overall portfolio; as well as identifying opportunities for collaboration among the federal agencies that would leverage investments, optimize use of infrastructure assets, and foster multidisciplinary research. The report will include decision rules on how the program could be adjusted if future funding levels increase or decrease relative to the current level.

Suggested Citation:"Introduction." National Research Council. 2015. Sea Change: 2015-2025 Decadal Survey of Ocean Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21655.

ways and create innovative educational programs that will engage and inspire the next generation. Partnerships will be fostered across funding agencies, national borders, and the private sector to provide the greatest value for the nation’s investment in ocean science.

The committee’s approach and recommendations are guided by this vision, and although the words are from the committee, the content and focus derive from those with whom the committee spoke, from the Virtual Town Hall, from discussions at major ocean science conferences, and from presentations at committee meetings. The report begins with a retrospective of some of the major accomplishments in the field since the release of the last OCE decadal planning document, Ocean Sciences in the New Millennium (NSF, 2001). These accomplishments (Chapter 1) illustrate many of the strengths of the field that the committee highlights in the vision statement as being vital for future success. This analysis helped to inform the committee’s approach to identifying science priorities for the next decade (Chapter 2). This chapter includes a description of the committee’s strategy for developing research priorities, provides a short explanation of the importance of each priority, and lists examples of specific research questions that fall within them. Next, the report provides an overview of the current circumstances of OCE’s budget, describes the major research infrastructure and facilities, and assesses the alignment of major infrastructure with the identified science priorities (Chapter 3). In Chapter 4, the committee provides a path forward, addresses the current fiscal challenges facing OCE, recommends guidance for OCE’s budget decisions over the next decade, and discusses strategies to ensure a dynamic and productive research enterprise in the decades to come.


NRC (National Research Council). 2000. 50 Years of Ocean Discovery. National Academy Press, Washington, DC.

NSF (National Science Foundation). 2001. Ocean Sciences at the New Millennium. National Science Foundation, Arlington, VA.

NSTC Joint Subcommittee on Ocean Science and Technology. 2007. Charting the Course for Ocean Science in the United States for the Next Decade: An Ocean Research Priorities Plan and Implementation Strategy. Available,

Suggested Citation:"Introduction." National Research Council. 2015. Sea Change: 2015-2025 Decadal Survey of Ocean Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21655.
Suggested Citation:"Introduction." National Research Council. 2015. Sea Change: 2015-2025 Decadal Survey of Ocean Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21655.
Suggested Citation:"Introduction." National Research Council. 2015. Sea Change: 2015-2025 Decadal Survey of Ocean Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21655.
Suggested Citation:"Introduction." National Research Council. 2015. Sea Change: 2015-2025 Decadal Survey of Ocean Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21655.
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Ocean science connects a global community of scientists in many disciplines - physics, chemistry, biology, geology and geophysics. New observational and computational technologies are transforming the ability of scientists to study the global ocean with a more integrated and dynamic approach. This enhanced understanding of the ocean is becoming ever more important in an economically and geopolitically connected world, and contributes vital information to policy and decision makers charged with addressing societal interests in the ocean.

Science provides the knowledge necessary to realize the benefits and manage the risks of the ocean. Comprehensive understanding of the global ocean is fundamental to forecasting and managing risks from severe storms, adapting to the impacts of climate change, and managing ocean resources. In the United States, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is the primary funder of the basic research which underlies advances in our understanding of the ocean. Sea Change addresses the strategic investments necessary at NSF to ensure a robust ocean scientific enterprise over the next decade. This survey provides guidance from the ocean sciences community on research and facilities priorities for the coming decade and makes recommendations for funding priorities.

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