Expert Report

Science at Sea: Meeting Future Oceanographic Goals with a Robust Academic Research Fleet (2009)

Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

The U.S. academic research fleet is an essential national resource, providing ships that allow oceanographers to collect measurements and analyze data from the near-shore to the deep ocean. Oceanographers are embracing a host of remote technologies that can facilitate the collection of data, but will continue to require capable, adaptable research vessels for access to the sea. Growing awareness of the ocean's critical role in environmental processes means that understanding issues such as climate change, ocean acidification, and tsunami generation is an increasingly high priority for national and worldwide health and security, and is likely to increase scientific demands on the fleet. This report recommends that maintaining U.S. leadership in ocean research will require investing in larger and more capable general purpose ships; involving the scientific community in all phases of ship design and acquisition; and improving coordination between agencies that operate research fleets.

Key Messages

  • All future University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System acquisitions should involve the scientific community in the pre-construction through pre-delivery phases
  • Because of the long life-span of research fleet ships -- typically 30 years or more -- long-term planning is needed to ensure that the fleet remains capable of supporting research needs well into the future
  • Many assets are not integrated between organizations, leading to sub-optimal use of the full U.S. research fleet and a mismatch between available ship time and research needs
  • Opportunities exist to better integrate icebreakers operated by the U.S. Coast Guard and supported by the National Science Foundation's Office of Polar Programs with the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System's management system to increase efficient use of the fleet
  • Overall, the partnerships between federal and state agencies, academic institutions, and private interests successfully serves national oceanographic research objectives and is anticipated to continue
  • The fleet of the future will need larger, more capable, general purpose ships in the Global and Regional categories, to support increasingly complex, multidisciplinary, multi-investigator research projects