Technology Development for Ocean Sciences at NSF
H. Lawrence Clark
Division of Ocean Sciences, National Science Foundation
Great advances in our understanding of global oceans and their interactions with the Earth and the atmosphere have been made under NSF sponsorship over the past 50 years. Many of these achievements were enabled, in part, by scientists' having the technical capabilities and other means to collect samples, run experiments, and make appropriate observations. The NSF, primarily through the Ocean Sciences Division (OCE), addresses the provision and development of technology for conducting ocean research in three ways: (1) by supporting a variety of shared-use facilities and technical services, (2) by developing techniques and instruments through the disciplinary research programs, and (3) through establishment of a unique technology development program that supports development of new capabilities for the overall ocean science community. The mechanisms through which OCE provides technological capabilities and develops new ones have evolved as the field has matured. OCE has effectively met community requirements for supporting facilities and projects necessary to advance the field. Provisions for funding long-term development of new instrumentation and technological capabilities should remain a priority for continued advancements. Just as past progress has benefited from collaborations with other agencies and endeavors, establishing and maintaining partnerships to develop new technological capabilities are going to be critical for future progress in ocean sciences as well.
He [Benjamin Franklin] thought the thermometer could become an important aid to navigation, particularly to ships sailing in or near the Gulf Stream. He convinced Capt. Truxtun that this novel idea was a good one, and for many years the Captain went about plunging thermometers into most of the seas of the world. (Ferguson, 1956)
This brief passage describes an interesting aspect of ocean science research—and it illustrates how sometimes one type of measurement will lead to basic new knowledge about a seemingly unrelated oceanographic feature. The passage describes how one of the earliest discoveries and descriptions of the Gulf Stream was brought about by associating the relative sailing time for trans-atlantic passages with seawater temperature. As Postmaster General for the newly formed United States, Benjamin Franklin received complaints about mail delivery. Eastbound ships from America to England made the passage in half the time of westbound ships. There were suspicions of a trading conspiracy.
After looking at ships' logs and talking with captains (including a relative who was captain of a Nantucket whaling ship), Franklin related rapid eastbound passages and slow westbound passages to unusually warm seawater. The fastest westbound passages followed a more southerly crossing in colder water. The notion of a flow pattern he developed was one of the first physical descriptions of the Gulf Stream. Based on this new knowledge, sailing orders were issued to avoid the warm water when sailing west to America from Europe, but to stay in the warmer water when sailing east to Europe.
Ocean science is in large part an observational science, so it follows that our knowledge of the oceans has increased as we have increasingly gained the ability to make measurements and observe natural processes on, within, and under the oceans. To do so, ocean scientists need appropriate tools and observational capabilities. It's not always obvious what tools will be needed to make the appropriate measurements. As described in other papers in this volume, great scientific achievements have been made under NSF sponsorship over the past 50 years. These achievements were enabled, in part,
by scientists' being able to make appropriate observations, which in turn has depended on the availability of technological capabilities and the development of new technology, including that specifically for ocean science research.
Technology for ocean science research covers a wide spectrum, ranging from ships and satellites and underwater vehicles and buoys, to sophisticated laboratory instrumentation. Providing the appropriate technologies and developing tools and new technologies for research constitute a complex process. Initially, one needs to figure out how to measure what it is you're trying to measure. For example, it's figuring out how to make routine measurements of temperature and salinity from the surface to full ocean depths with enough precision, accuracy, and repeatability that one can describe the movement of water masses—when the physical differences between them are slight. How does one measure the heat content and heat distribution within these water masses and its exchange with the atmosphere in order to make predictions about climate variability? How does one measure the amount of material that sinks from the productive surface waters to the seafloor? How does one measure and describe the microbial processes in the water column and on the seafloor, as this sinking material decomposes and provides nutrients for other ecosystems? How does one measure the geological structure and properties of the sea-floor so as to be able to understand the processes that gave origin to the Earth and that are continually shaping it? Once a decision is made as to what measurements are needed, then the issue is how does one get there and what does one use to make the necessary observations?
What we can learn about the oceans from direct observations with scuba tanks and surface measurements isn't particularly insightful and doesn't provide much new information on scales necessary to study basic processes at work in the oceans. It's when one goes to deeper water that things get interesting. First of all, investigators need to get out on the ocean with adequate tools and capabilities to handle whatever it is that was designed and built to make the measurements or collect the samples. Providing technological capabilities for the overall ocean science research community is where NSF has taken the lead and structured its programs to support these capabilities.
The NSF, primarily through the Division of Ocean Sciences, addresses the provision and development of technology in three ways: (1) by supporting a variety of shared-use facilities and technical services, (2) by developing new techniques and instruments through the disciplinary research programs, and (3) through establishment of a unique technology development program that supports development of new capabilities that might lead to enhanced capabilities for the overall ocean science community. The mechanisms through which OCE provides technological capabilities and develops new ones has evolved as the field has matured.
TECHNOLOGY VIA SUPPORT FOR MAJOR FACILITIES
Central to almost all oceanographic research endeavors in all disciplines is the research vessel. Research vessels and their equipment represent a major technological asset, and as such, they are critical to the advancement of ocean science research. Although the ships themselves have different owners and lineages, NSF has become the major source of support for providing, operating, coordinating, and maintaining this technological capability. This capability evolved over time and within some severe financial constraints, but it also evolved in response to some time-tested managerial decisions.
Because of their high costs of construction and operations, ships have always been the focus of special attention. It took the British Navy several years to come up with the resources in 1876 to provide the H.M.S. Challenger for the famous four-year expedition that initiated the field of ocean science research. Government ships provided the seagoing capability for civilian ocean science research in this country for decades.
Prior to World War II, there were four or five academic research ships in the country, each of which was operated and maintained by the few oceanographic laboratories at the time, for their own projects and personnel. During the rapid growth years of the 1960s, the Navy, primarily the Office of Naval Research (ONR), provided most of the support for ocean research and technology. The number of oceanographic research institutions grew and the number of ships grew. By 1970, the academic fleet totaled at least 24 ships— the operation of which had become big business. Also by 1970, the NSF had become the major source of support for ocean science research as major new programs, such as the International Decade of Ocean Exploration (IDOE), started up. Other agencies such as ONR and the Department of Energy (DOE) were major sponsors as well, but their relative support was diminishing.
The NSF took a different approach for funding research and facilities than did the Navy and other agencies supporting oceanographic research at that time. ONR research programs generally funded entire research projects inclusively—the research, the equipment, the technology, and the necessary ship time. NSF, on the other hand, separated research from seagoing logistics and facility support. In 1960, NSF established a separate office for the construction, conversion, and operation of research ships. Mary Johrde first headed this office, which went by different names with different reorganizations. But the Oceanographic Centers and Facilities Section (OCFS), as it is called today, has had responsibility for providing ship time and other facility support for Ocean Science Research Section (OSRS)-sponsored projects and other projects sponsored throughout the NSF.
The "NSF model" of separating ship and facility sup
port from the research programs had some interesting consequences with respect to technology. The separation of facility support from research support enabled more focused attention to be given to improving technology as a community resource. The "ONR model" of inclusive project support worked well in the 1950s and early 1960s when institutions took on individual projects from start to finish. Having a research program buy ship time, technical services, and equipment was helpful to the successful completion of the individual project, but it did little to enhance research and technological capability for the community as a whole. During the 1950s and 1960s, institutions that operated ships did so primarily for their own scientists. Everything necessary for a study was taken on the ship at the start of a cruise, and off the ship at the end. There was little reason to think about what type of technologies or capabilities a ship required, other than the basic equipment-handling capabilities provided by winches and cranes.
A ship's technological capability became increasingly important as ocean science matured in the 1970s. As programs such as the IDOE progressed, ocean research became more expeditionary, multidisciplinary, multi-institutional, and much more complex. Scientists were increasingly making use of research vessels that were operated by an institution other than theirs. Ship scheduling and management plus the acquisition and management of technology became an important matter for the newly established University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS), which is the topic of an earlier paper in this volume.
At the very first UNOLS meeting in November 1971, the issue of providing technological assistance to science projects using UNOLS research vessels was identified as a matter that needed addressing. The NSF model of separating ship and facility operations from science support enabled the Office of Facilities Support to tackle the technology provision issue by establishing two new programs: the Shipboard Technician Program and the Oceanographic Instrumentation Program.
The Shipboard Technician Program was established in 1972 to provide technical assistance to users of the academic research vessel fleet. Technical services funded by NSF had an at-sea component and an onshore component. Technical support activities at sea involve maintenance and repair of shared-use scientific equipment, plus supervision and training of scientific personnel in the safe and effective use of this equipment. Activities ashore included the maintenance, calibration, and scheduling of the shared-use equipment that was made available to ship users. Additionally, the technical support activities provided a liaison between the scientific party and the ship's support personnel and crew. As the use of research vessels by visiting investigators increased and as the complexity of equipment on varying ships increased, this liaison function became increasingly important in making best use of time spent at sea.
UNOLS concerned itself with improving technological capabilities as well. The Technical Assistance Committee (TAC) was established in 1974. It developed a set of standard technological capabilities for the different classes or sizes of academic research vessels and worked toward improving these capabilities. The NSF Technician Support Program, working with TAC, developed new capabilities for research vessels as well. One such new development was the installation of SAIL (serial-ASCII instrumentation loop) systems. SAIL systems onboard UNOLS ships allowed scientists to automatically display and record a number of environmental parameters, such as date and time, navigational coordinates, sea-surface temperature, and other meteorological data plus the project's experimental data. It's difficult to realize in these days of powerful personal computers and local area networks, that the ability to walk off a research vessel with a data tape from a just-completed cruise represented a new technological capability 20 years ago. This seemingly trivial advancement was an important step for conducting oceanographic observations, because it facilitated the integration and assimilation of multiple observations, which is the focus of much oceanographic research today.
EQUIPMENT AND TECHNOLOGY ACQUISITION
Until the mid-1970s, the acquisition of all facility equipment by NSF for use on ships and ashore was managed by a single equipment acquisition program. Ships' equipment, such as winches, cranes, echo-sounding gear, and other permanently affixed equipment, was proposed and reviewed along with pooled-use scientific instrumentation. Proposers and reviewers had a difficult time sorting out the relative priorities of robust ships' equipment versus precision scientific instrumentation, especially given the rapid evolution of seagoing scientific instrumentation and the intense competition for funds. Many people felt that the ability to make technological improvements through the acquisition of new instrumentation was being hampered by the ongoing need for permanent shipboard equipment. In response to this concern, a separate Oceanographic Instrumentation Program was established in 1974 to support the acquisition of shared-use scientific instrumentation. This newly acquired instrumentation was to be placed in a pool of equipment and made available to users of the facility, be it a research vessel or a shore-based laboratory. The overall research support capability of the institution and its ability to make effective use of the requested instrumentation for conducting NSF-sponsored research projects were main criteria for evaluating proposals.
Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) Facility
Although ships and their related activities have been the major focus for providing new community-wide technologi
cal capabilities for ocean science research, they have not had sole attention. In planning for the major global change research programs, the World Ocean Circulation Experiment (WOCE) and the Joint Global Ocean Flux Study (JGOFS), considerable attention was given to determine whether adequate facilities and capabilities were in place in order to do the ambitious programs. A particular shortcoming was identified in the research community's ability to analyze a very large number of radiocarbon and other tracer samples that were envisioned for WOCE and JGOFS. These chemical tracers, carbon-14 in particular, have become valuable tools for describing oceanographic processes. They provide information on long-term mixing and circulation in the deep ocean, on upwelling, and on air-sea carbon dioxide exchange processes. These processes have major implications for understanding the forces that affect climate variability and the chemical interaction of the carbon cycle and biological productivity. Given the large number of samples needed for WOCE, JGOFS, and other geosciences programs, it was recognized that available analytical and logistical capabilities were inadequate to meet scientific requirements. Plans called for the analysis of up to 4,000 carbon-14 samples annually with precision of 0.3 to 0.4 percent.
Following several workshops and advisory meetings, OCE issued an Announcement of Opportunity in 1987 to establish an ocean science Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Facility. Newly developed AMS technology could reduce the required sample size by a factor of 1,000, to 250 ml of seawater, for achieving the requisite level of precision. However, considerable effort would be necessary to develop automated sample preparation procedures and new instrumentation for a high level of throughput.
Funds for establishing the AMS facility were identified in the fiscal year 1989 NSF budget request to Congress. Approximately $1.8 million per year for three years was planned for construction, installation, and initial operation. Five institutions submitted proposals. The end result is the National Ocean Sciences Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (NOSAMS) Facility at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The facility's goal is to provide the oceanographic community with a large number (up to 4,300 per year) of high-precision radiocarbon analyses. This includes rapid dissemination of the results of these analyses to the user and scientific communities. A commitment to automation has been made throughout the facility, including sample preparation, analysis, and data reduction, and a comprehensive relational database and bar-coding system tracks every sample and every process performed at the facility.
INCREMENTAL ADVANCES IN TECHNOLOGY
An overall characteristic of ocean science research is the fact that scientific advances and improved technological capabilities are incremental. With few exceptions, such as the hydrothermal vent discoveries from Alvin that are discussed elsewhere in this report, advances in our knowledge of the oceans are measured in small steps. The great advances that have been made in our knowledge of the oceans in the past 50 years are not so much in response to great technological advances, such as in space expeditions sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), but rather from the continuous application of technologies and incremental new developments arising from scientific investigations. Essential to scientific advancement are the provision of technology to accomplish the research and providing mechanisms for developing and applying new technologies.
As a relative newcomer to the study of the oceans, compared to naval and fisheries interests, NSF has been a beneficiary of a long history of focused technological and scientific research. During this century and especially since World War II, the major provider of technological capabilities has been the U.S. Navy. There is a long and distinguished list of scientific accomplishments derived from Navy-developed instruments and technologies. These include
SWATH bathymetric sonar,
laser line scan optical sensors,
global positioning satellite system,
ocean bottom seismometers,
seagoing flux gate total field magnetometer,
Alvin and Flip,
acoustic Doppler current meters,
bioluminescence sensors, and
long-term mooring technologies.
NSF's research requirements are oftentimes compatible with capabilities provided for the Navy interests, but there have been issues of accessibility, further refinement, adaptation, and cost-effective usage. Many requirements are unique to ocean science research and therefore require a focused and specific effort to make the right type of measurements at the right scale and with the needed precision and accuracy.
Throughout the period of the IDOE and subsequent reorganizations, nearly all NSF-sponsored technology developments were funded through individual research projects. Observational and measurement capabilities were developed by scientists in direct response to the progression of their scientific inquiry. One example, among thousands, is the successive development of plankton nets and other devices for enumerating and describing the distribution of plankton. Traditional conical nets gave way to multiple opening and closing nets, to which sensors were added to relate physical factors to the abundance of collected plankton. Nets in turn gave way to optical and acoustic sensing systems that work on varying time and space scales. No single device or capability is necessarily an objective. Differing research objectives call for differing research capabilities. Developing new
capabilities oftentimes had to be accomplished over a succession of different proposals, reviews, and awards under sponsorship of different agencies and programs.
TECHNOLOGY DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM
In 1981, the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) reported that technology development across the federal ocean programs was poorly coordinated and was provided mainly through specific objectives of mission-oriented agencies such as the Navy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and NASA (OTA, 1981). NSF was shown to have a minimal role in ocean instrumentation and technology development. Research programs were attributed to whatever technology support was provided on an ad hoc basis.
About this same time, observers of the NSF ocean science peer-review process noted that in matching available resources to highly rated proposal budgets, instrumentation development was one of the first items to be eliminated. The focus was on research, more than on new tools to accomplish it. This was especially true of multidisciplinary instrumentation. Funding pressures and the conservative nature of the peer-review process required that NSF-sponsored technology development for basic ocean research either be essential for the accomplishment of the highest-rated research projects or be done at no cost to NSF.
Given these somewhat subjective observations, an experimental program area was established in fiscal year 1982 to consider proposals for developing new instrumentation and new technological capabilities that would have broad applicability. The Oceanographic Technology (OT) program was established within OCFS as part of an overall reorganization of OCE. The OT Program also assumed responsibility for supporting shipboard technicians, the acquisition of commercially available shared-use research instrumentation, and the development of new instrumentation and technology by individual investigators. In keeping with the multiuser facility responsibilities of OCFS, initial proposal submission guidelines for technology development emphasized data collection and general-use instrumentation.
Since this was a new program area and the first of its type for ocean science at any agency, there was a lot of latitude in the scope of the original proposals. Ocean science instrumentation development proposals had to satisfy two major proposal requirements: technological or engineering quality and ocean science relevance. Bimodal ratings occasionally resulted when scientists were enthusiastic about a proposed new measurement capability, but engineering reviewers judged that the proposal was technically flawed. The opposite also occurred when a proposed new development was well reviewed from the technical side, but the science reviewers found the scientific relevance or utility of the new device to be lacking.
From its inception in fiscal year 1982 through fiscal year 1998, slightly more than $55.5 million has been awarded for supporting more than 150 ocean science instrument development projects. Three general categories of projects have been supported, reflecting different community requirements: (1) demonstration projects that typically seek part-time support for a technician or engineer, plus supplies to test an idea for enhancing existing instrumentation; (2) implementation projects that span a range of activities for further developing or modifying existing instrumentation for general ocean science research applications; and (3) instrumentation systems development, which involve major projects, represented by cooperative efforts between scientists and engineers to integrate several instruments and technologies into an observational system. Parallel advances in theory and instrumentation are usually necessitated. Bioacoustic and satellite remote sensing, long-term moorings, tomography, autonomous underwater vehicles, conditional sampling devices built around knowledge-based systems, and fiber-optic sensors are examples of this complex category of development project. A long-term effort is required at relatively high annual cost, and risk of failure is a further consideration.
The peer-review system does not lend itself well to long-term, forward-looking projects with a significant risk of failure. However, to develop new capabilities that are driven by scientific needs, risk can be reviewed and managed. A case in point is the development and establishment of long-term seafloor observatories. The scientific need to make long-term measurements, in both the coastal zone and the deep sea, coupled with newly developed sensors and other technologies, has set the stage for a new way of conducting certain types of ocean science research. The nature of these observatories suggests that they will have to be a new type of facility. However, as with other facilities, their long-term support and viability will depend on their ability to provide the technological capabilities that will be needed to support ongoing ocean science research.
If one considers the phenomenal advances that the academic ocean science research community has made in the past several decades, sponsored primarily by NSF, one may conclude that the provision of technology and the development of new capabilities have been appropriately addressed. An adequate mix of ships and facilities has been provided to the community, research projects have been underpinned by a growing technological base, and OCE has provided funds to lay the groundwork and develop new capabilities for research envisioned in the future. OCE has effectively met a community requirement for supporting projects to enhance and upgrade existing observational and analytical research capabilities. The availability of significant levels of funding for long-term development of new instrumentation and technology should remain a priority for growth. Just as past progress has been based on collaborations with other agencies and endeavors, establishing partnerships and maintaining them are going to be critical for future progress.
Ferguson, E.S. 1956. Truxtun of the CONSTELLATION. Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, Maryland.
Office of Technology Assessment. 1981. Technology and Oceanography: An Assessment of Federal Technologies for Oceanographic Research and Monitoring. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 161 pp.