Starry-eyed plan? A new report urges a new era of marine exploration.

Exploring the Deep

David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

The United States should take the lead in launching a new era of global ocean exploration, argues a new report from a National Academy of Sciences committee. But with a hefty price tag--start-up costs alone could run $270 million--the proposal is likely to encounter rough seas. "The money will be difficult, ... [but] we need to set an example and then seek collaboration," says Representative James Greenwood (R-PA), a longtime proponent of ocean exploration, who spurred Congress to request the study.

The international panel reported today on the feasibility of a global initiative to explore little-studied regions of the world (Science, 24 May 2002, p. 1386). Current funding priorities favor narrow, hypothesis-driven studies that send scientists repeatedly to the same sites. But there's another way, says Shirley Pomponi, head of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce, Florida, and a member of the panel: "Hypothesis-generating exploration has gotten short shrift," she says. Adds Greenwood, "it's exactly what we wanted ... it's time to end our international ignorance about the oceans."

Discovery won't come cheap, however. The panel estimates that a "minimal" exploration program, using leased ships and submarines and targeting just a few topics, would cost $30 million a year. Starting a "fully capitalized" program would cost $270 million, it estimates, and up to $110 million annually to operate. The full program would need a dedicated, $70 million exploration vessel and 18 submersibles, including piloted, tethered, and autonomous models.

The panel concluded that international support for such an ambitious program isn't there yet, but that the United States could get the project started. It suggests that the National Oceanographic Partnership Program, a 15-agency coordinating body, should oversee a new exploration effort, and an independent nonprofit organization, similar to those that run the Hubble Space Telescope and ocean drilling programs, should operate it.

Pomponi and others acknowledge that some scientists have derided the idea of a new vessel as a "ship of fools." The criticism, she says, is based on the misperception that exploration "is just people cruising the high seas on a lark." Other skeptics question whether marine science budgets--roughly $400 million annually in the United States--can grow fast enough to accommodate a new exploration program.

Greenwood hopes to overcome these obstacles by gaining the support of President George W. Bush. Bush could polish his environmental record with a "blue-green initiative," says Greenwood: "If Kennedy could go to the moon, there is no reason Bush can't go to the bottom of the sea."

With reporting by Edna Francisco.

Posted in Earth