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January 23rd, 2015
Sea-Level Rise, Climate Change Impacts on Marine Ecosystems, and Geohazards Are Among Priorities for Ocean Science Over Next Decade

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WASHINGTON — A new report from the National Research Council identifies priority areas for ocean science research in the next decade, including the rate and impacts of sea-level rise, the effects of climate change on marine ecosystems, greater understanding of marine food webs, and better approaches for forecasting hazards such as mega-earthquakes and tsunamis. The report also recommends that the National Science Foundation rebalance its funding for ocean science research, which in recent years has shifted toward research infrastructure at the expense of core science programs.

“The next decade and beyond should be a time of opportunity and progress in ocean science, with advances that benefit the societal and economic goals not only of our nation but also the world,” said Shirley Pomponi, co-chair of the committee that wrote the report and research professor and executive director of the NOAA Cooperative Institute for Ocean Exploration, Research, and Technology at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute-Florida Atlantic University. “We hope this report, which incorporates broad input from the community of ocean scientists, will provide NSF and other agencies with a vision and strategic direction for ocean science research.”

The decadal survey was undertaken at the request of the Division of Ocean Sciences (OCE) at the National Science Foundation, the main funder of basic research in the ocean sciences.  In identifying priority research areas, the study committee collected input from the ocean sciences community through in-person and virtual town hall meetings, literature reviews, presentations by academic and government scientists, and discussions with colleagues. To select top priorities among the many topics gathered, the committee applied four criteria: transformative research potential, societal impact, readiness, and partnership potential.

The eight priority science questions that emerged from this process are:

§  What are the rates, mechanisms, impacts, and geographic variability of sea-level change?

§  How are the coastal and estuarine ocean and their ecosystems influenced by the global hydrologic cycle, land use, and upwelling from the deep ocean?

§  How have ocean biogeochemical and physical processes contributed to today’s climate and its variability, and how will this system change over the next century?

§  What is the role of biodiversity in the resilience of marine ecosystems and how will it be affected by natural and anthropogenic changes?

§  How different will marine food webs be at mid-century? In the next 100 years?

§  What are the processes that control the formation and evolution of ocean basins?

§  How can we better characterize risk and improve the ability to forecast geohazards like mega-earthquakes, tsunamis, undersea landslides, and volcanic eruptions?

§  What is the geophysical, chemical, and biological character of the subseafloor environment and how does it affect global elemental cycles and understanding of the origin and evolution of life?

Because achieving many of these decadal priorities will require research across the disciplines of ocean science, it is important that the ocean science community not encounter barriers to obtaining funding for interdisciplinary research, the report says.  And because these questions have broad relevance to societal issues, other federal agencies may also be interested in devoting resources to these questions; collaboration among agencies could hasten advances.

Rebalancing Funding

From 2000 to 2014, OCE’s annual budgets have not kept pace with the rising costs of operating and maintaining research infrastructure, including the fleet of academic research vessels, scientific ocean drilling facilities, and the Ocean Observatories Initiative. As a consequence, the increase in infrastructure costs has led to a substantial decline in funding for core research programs and therefore less support for investigators.

Without a budget increase, the only way to restore funding for core science is to reduce the amount of money spent on infrastructure, the report says. If budgets remain flat or have only inflationary increases, OCE should adjust its major infrastructure programs to comprise no more than 40 percent to 50 percent of its total annual program budget, the report says. To implement this, OCE should initiate an immediate 10 percent reduction in major infrastructure costs in their next budget, followed by an additional 10 percent to 20 percent decrease over the following five years.

Cost savings should be applied directly to strengthening core science programs, investing in technology development, and funding partnerships to address the decadal science priorities, the report says. “Reductions in infrastructure support are never easy and will cause disruptions for parts of the ocean science community,” said committee co-chair David Titley, professor of practice in meteorology and director of Penn State’s Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk. “But restoring a balance between the core science budget and infrastructure and then investing prudently in new technology will enable a diverse community of scientists to undertake research and pursue discoveries that will advance ocean science.”  

The report urges continued involvement of the scientific community in setting goals and objectives moving forward. And it encourages OCE to expand its partnerships with other agencies, international programs, and other sectors since these partnerships can maximize the value of research and infrastructure investments.

The study was sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies.  They are private, independent nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter granted in 1863.  For more information, visit  A committee roster follows.


Lauren Rugani, Media Relations Officer

Christina Anderson, Media Relations Assistant

Office of News and Public Information

202-334-2138; e-mail

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Pre-publication copies of  Sea Change: 2015-2025 Decadal Survey of Ocean Sciences are available from the National Academies Press on the Internet at or by calling 202-334-3313 or1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

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