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50 Years of Ocean Discovery: National Science Foundation 1950-2000 (2000)

Chapter: Global Ocean Science: Toward an Integrated Approach

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Suggested Citation:"Global Ocean Science: Toward an Integrated Approach." National Research Council. 2000. 50 Years of Ocean Discovery: National Science Foundation 1950-2000. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9702.

Global Ocean Science: Toward an Integrated Approach1


The rigorous nature of conducting research at sea has been a major challenge facing oceanographers since the earliest research cruises. As interest in understanding large-scale phenomena with global implications began to shape ocean research, the need for greater spatial coverage and near synoptic observations required a change in the way oceanographic research was done. A significant innovation to emerge early this century was the organization of large expeditions that attempted to systematically collect ocean observations across great expanses of the oceans by extended cruises of one or more research vessels. As a result of the need to coordinate these activities, what became known as major oceanographic programs came into being.

In many ways, these major programs are inexorably linked to this nation's ability to understand and protect our environment and the tremendous resources it contains. As will be demonstrated in this report, the health of the ocean science community and the research community it includes is strongly influenced by these large collaborative efforts. With several of the present group of major oceanographic programs now nearing their conclusion, the Ocean Sciences Division of the National Science Foundation (NSF/OCE) has undertaken a number of steps to evaluate the present vitality of oceanographic research in this country, with the hope of developing a comprehensive research strategy to take ocean science forward into the next century. As part of that effort, NSF/OCE asked the Ocean Studies Board of the National Research Council to conduct a study of the role of major programs in ocean research. This request resulted in the formation of the Committee on Major U.S. Oceanographic Research Programs, whose purpose was to evaluate the impact of the past and present programs and provide advice on how these programs should be developed arid managed in the future.


The major oceanographic programs have had an important impact on ocean science. Many breakthroughs and discoveries regarding ocean processes that operate on large spatial scales and over a range of time frames have been achieved by major oceanographic programs that could not have been expected without the concentrated effort of a variety of specialists directed toward these large and often high profile scientific challenges. In addition to these contributions, each program has left (or can be expected to leave) behind a legacy of high-quality, high-resolution, multiparameter data sets; new and improved facilities and techniques; and a large number of trained technicians and young scientists. The discoveries, data, and facilities will continue to be used to increase the understanding of fur damental earth system processes well after the current generation of programs have ended.

Scientific Understanding and Education

Scientific advances in several high-profile areas have been brought about by research conducted through the major


 Executive summary from: National Research Council (NRC). 1999. Global Ocean Science: Toward an Integrated Approach. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C. For information about obtaining this report, contact the Ocean Studies Board, National Research Council, 2101 Constitution Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20418. The Ocean Studies Board's Committee on Major Oceanographic Programs was chaired by Rana Fine (University of Miami-RSMAS). Other committee members included Charles Cox (Scripps Institution of Oceanography), William Curry (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution), Ellen Druffel (University of California, Irvine), Jeffrey Fox (Texas A&M University), Roger Lukas (University of Hawaii, Manoa), James Murray (University of Washington), Neil Opdyke (University of Florida), Thomas Powell (University of California, Berkeley), Michael Roman (University of Maryland), Thomas Royer (Old Dominion University), Lynda Shapiro (University of Oregon), Anne Thompson (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). and Andrew Weaver (University of Victoria, British Columbia). Dan Walker was the study director. Rana Free presented a summary of this report at the symposium.

Suggested Citation:"Global Ocean Science: Toward an Integrated Approach." National Research Council. 2000. 50 Years of Ocean Discovery: National Science Foundation 1950-2000. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9702.

oceanographic programs. Examples include increased understanding of the causes of mass extinction, the role of ocean circulation in climate (e.g., El Niño) and in the decline in fisheries, and the ability of the ocean and marine organisms to buffer changes in the concentrations of the so-called greenhouse gases (e.g., carbon dioxide). Also of importance is the wide use of program discoveries and data in the classroom, the availability of program facilities for general community and educational purposes, and the training of graduate students. As discoveries and advances attributable to these programs continue to influence research conducted throughout the ocean science community, the significance of these programs will become even more apparent.

The usually high-quality, global, multiparameter data sets and time series developed by major oceanographic programs will be some of their most important and enduring legacies. It is essential to preserve and ensure timely access to these data sets. Every effort must be made to facilitate data exchange and prepare for an ever-increasing demand for access to these large data sets.

Technology and Facilities

Major programs have affected the size and composition of the research fleet, and provided impetus for the development of technology and facilities used by the wider oceanographic community. The programs have contributed to a range of technological developments, facilities, and standardization of sampling techniques. Similar to what is done periodically for the research fleet, a thorough review of the other facilities, including procedures for establishing and maintaining them, is necessary to set priorities for support of the facilities used by the wider oceanographic committee. The very long lead times needed for fleet and facilities development require that the oceanographic community be developing plans for facilities requirements for 2008 and beyond. Strategic planning for facilities (ship and non-ship) should be coordinated across agencies with long-range science plans and should include input from the ocean sciences community.


Major oceanographic programs account for a significant proportion of the funding resources available to ocean science. As a consequence of these programs, more money has been made available for ocean science research in general. However, the proportion of funds consumed by these programs has tended to heighten concerns about the effect these programs have had on collegiality within the research community. Nevertheless, many scientists recognize positive impacts of major programs on the way ocean scientists work together toward an objective, including greater willingness to share data.

In the future, allocation decisions should be based on wide input from the research community and the basis for decisions should be set forth clearly to the scientific community. By providing the research community with timely access to information regarding these decisions, miss-perceptions can be avoided and the impact of funding pressures minimized.


Given the extensive involvement of the academic community in recent activities undertaken by NSF/OCE to develop a research strategy for ocean science, the committee determined that attempting to specifically identify scientific gaps would be redundant and unnecessary. Yet, a number of mechanisms can help the ocean science community's planning process by identifying scientific and generic gaps in and among existing programs. Some scientific gaps can be addressed by enhancing communication and coordination. The sponsoring agencies, especially NSF/OCE, should continue to develop and expand the use of various mechanisms for inter-program strategic planning, including workshops and plenary sessions at national and international meetings and ever greater use of World Wide Web sites and newsletters.

Generic gaps that were identified in and among programs are as follows:

  • the need for funding agencies and the major oceanographic programs to develop mechanisms to deal with contingencies;

  • the need to establish (with broad input from the ocean science community) priorities for moving long time-series and other observations initiated by various programs into an operational mode, in consideration of their quality, length, number of variables, space and time resolution, accessibility for the wider community, and relevance toward meeting established goals;

  • the need for modelers and observationalists to work together during all stages of program design and implementation;

  • the need to enhance modeling, data assimilation, data synthesis capabilities, and funding of dedicated computers for ocean modeling and data assimilation with facilities distributed as appropriate; and

  • the need for federal agencies in partnership with the National Oceanographic Data Center (NODC) to take steps to prepare for a supporting role in data synthesis activities (including, but not limited to, data assimilation).


The present NSF/OCE structure has made it difficult to get intermediate-size projects funded (as distinguished from

Suggested Citation:"Global Ocean Science: Toward an Integrated Approach." National Research Council. 2000. 50 Years of Ocean Discovery: National Science Foundation 1950-2000. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9702.

major programs), particularly ones that are interdisciplinary. These intermediate-size projects could be solicited, funded, and executed in a way that would ensure a regular turnover of new ideas and opportunities for different investigators. Federal agencies sponsoring oceanographic research programs, especially NSF/OCE, should make every effort to encourage and support a broad spectrum of interdisciplinary research activities, varying in size from the collaboration of a few scientists to programs perhaps even larger in scope than the present major oceanographic programs.

There is no one procedure by which principal investigators with good ideas can start new programs. The sponsoring agencies, especially NSF/OCE, should develop well-defined procedures for initiating and selecting future major ocean programs. Successful ideas should be brought to planning workshops that are administered by an independent group to ensure that the process is inclusive.

In the past, major oceanographic programs have been administered by a Scientific Steering Committee (SSC) with a chair and sometimes an Executive Committee. However, there is no one ideal structure that should be used for all programs, and it is important for NSF/OCE and other agencies to maintain flexibility to consider a number of options regarding the design and execution of future programs. Some factors to be considered include the following:

  • The structure of the program should be dictated by the complexity and nature of the scientific challenge it addresses.

  • The nature and support of program administration should reflect the size, complexity, and duration of the program.

  • The structure should encourage continuous refinement of the program.

  • All programs should have well-defined milestones, including a clearly defined end.


Better communication, planning, and coordination among major oceanographic programs would serve to maximize the efficient use of resources; facilitate interdisciplinary synthesis; and enhance the understanding of ocean systems, their interaction with each other, and with those of the atmosphere and solid earth. In the past, communication among major ocean programs has been ad hoc, and coordination of field programs has been hampered by funding. Beyond field programs, synthesis activities will benefit from coordination. When appropriate, joint announcements of opportunity for inter-program synthesis should be issued. Communication and coordination can be facilitated among the ongoing major ocean programs by considering joint appointments to SSCs, and annual meetings of the SSC chairs. Greater involvement and appreciation for the accomplishments and challenges facing these programs by scientists not funded through the programs can occur if non-program scientists are recruited to participate as members of the SSCs and in other activities when appropriate.


The large-scale global scientific challenges of the future will continue to require major oceanographic programs. At the same time, the scientific research conducted by individual investigators in the core disciplines must be healthy. The pursuit of these two goals should include complementary activities that strengthen the overall national and international program of ocean science. The strength of many of the major programs and individual initiatives can be directly attributed to the NSF peer-review system and the flexibility of the agency and program managers. Some tools for federal agencies and the scientific community to use to balance these two often competing needs, based on scientific requirements, are presented in this report. In addition, there are opportunities for some course corrections that will enable the federal agencies, including NSF, to better respond to the growing need of the ocean sciences community to conduct multi-investigator and interdisciplinary research. The need to carry out interdisciplinary research through multi-investigator projects will continue to increase in recognition of the emphasis placed on global environmental and climate issues, issues that have largely displaced national security as an underlying motive for funding research in the geosciences.

The committee's recommended approach for achieving the goals described above would be to create a new interdisciplinary unit within the Research Section of NSF/OCE, charged with managing a broad spectrum of interdisciplinary projects. The large-scale global and integrative nature of some of the present scientific challenges, such as environmental and climate issues, will require greater coordination, as will the need for shared use of expensive platforms and facilities. The creation of such a unit could alleviate many of the real and perceived problems identified throughout this report related to coordination, collegiality, and planning, and thus help maximize the scientific return on the considerable investment this nation makes in ocean-related research.

Ocean sciences must reach a new level in order to successfully meet the emerging needs for environmental science. Doing so will require more integration and greater emphasis on consensus building. If the challenges can be met, a new interdisciplinary unit would be well positioned to aid in building partnerships among the agencies, and play a leading role in helping to create focused national efforts in future global geosciences initiatives.

Suggested Citation:"Global Ocean Science: Toward an Integrated Approach." National Research Council. 2000. 50 Years of Ocean Discovery: National Science Foundation 1950-2000. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9702.
Page 192
Suggested Citation:"Global Ocean Science: Toward an Integrated Approach." National Research Council. 2000. 50 Years of Ocean Discovery: National Science Foundation 1950-2000. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9702.
Page 193
Suggested Citation:"Global Ocean Science: Toward an Integrated Approach." National Research Council. 2000. 50 Years of Ocean Discovery: National Science Foundation 1950-2000. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9702.
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This book describes the development of ocean sciences over the past 50 years, highlighting the contributions of the National Science Foundation (NSF) to the field's progress. Many of the individuals who participated in the exciting discoveries in biological oceanography, chemical oceanography, physical oceanography, and marine geology and geophysics describe in the book how the discoveries were made possible by combinations of insightful individuals, new technology, and in some cases, serendipity.

In addition to describing the advance of ocean science, the book examines the institutional structures and technology that made the advances possible and presents visions of the field's future. This book is the first-ever documentation of the history of NSF's Division of Ocean Sciences, how the structure of the division evolved to its present form, and the individuals who have been responsible for ocean sciences at NSF as "rotators" and career staff over the past 50 years.

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