How do we science? / Policy / The HumanitSEAS

Invisible technicians on the seven seas

Ships have an allure in oceanography.  Even the most misanthropic scientists become oddly affectionate when describing research vessels, whether those ships exist only in the misty memory of graduate studies or are used in ongoing fieldwork.  RVs are not simply a means of accessing offshore study locations, but provide the physical and mental space for “doing science.”  Last fall, Antony Adler published an article in the Journal of the History of Biology, which I had never heard of but am delighted by its existence.  Adler’s premise built on an earlier article by Richard Sorrenson stating that, beginning in the 18th century, ships themselves were scientific instruments, rather than simply platforms to process and/or transport samples.  Early oceanography was heavily funded by national interests, which typically equated to military defense.  According to Sorrenson, a ship’s navigational equipment recorded the vessel’s exact location as it traveled along a coastline, and this data could later be used to create detailed maps for military engagements or territory claims.  Not just any ship could accomplish this: they had to be specially designed for cartographic use, leading Sorrenson to rationalize that the ship was, in effect, an instrument.

A map of the North and South Carolina coasts from the 1709 publication "A New Voyage to Carolina" by John Lawson.  Lawson was a British settler in NC who compiled the publication to help facilitate trade between Britain and the Carolinas.  From

A map of the North and South Carolina coasts from the 1709 publication “A New Voyage to Carolina” by John Lawson. Lawson was a British settler in NC who compiled the publication to help facilitate trade between Britain and the Carolinas. From

As oceanography became a scientific discipline over the next hundred years, Sorrenson suggested that ships were more comparable to floating laboratories that provided scientists with a “platform” to conduct research at sea.  Adler’s paper proposes that today, research vessels are akin to “invisible technicians.”  Underappreciated lab techs might identify with the name, but Adler means it in a more figurative sense: increasingly complex research vessels can deploy instruments that proceed to autonomously collect samples and data.  The RVs return periodically to ensure that everything is running and make appropriate repairs, but they are not continuously on-site.

Now, before I lose everyone but history and language enthusiasts, let’s bring this back to something close to the heart of scientists everywhere: funding.  In September 2013, oceanographers were awaiting the fate of the JOIDES Resolution, a well-known RV in the International Ocean Drilling Program (IODP).  The Resolution collects deep-sea cores to study everything from plate tectonics near Alaska to microbiology of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, but thanks to ever-shrinking NSF funding, it was nearly reduced to operating fewer than its standard eight months at sea.  The threat launched a Nature editorial defending the Resolution and questioning NSF’s decisions to spend stimulus money on expensive, flashy projects instead.

One of those big-budget showstoppers is the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI), a global ocean monitoring program that was conveniently profiled in the same issue as the Resolution editorial.  The news feature described that OOI is an effort to install sensors and monitoring instruments connected to extensive lengths of cable in various locations around the world.  OOI includes continuous and detailed monitoring of the Axial Seamount underwater volcano, and moorings and gliders measuring physical properties along the coastal United States and at four deep-sea sites.  The sites were chosen to learn more about undersea volcanoes, which are relatively unstudied, and about oft-ignored high latitutde deep-sea environments.  By the end of its 25-year lifetime, OOI will have run up a cost of about $1.8 billion dollars, leading the Nature author to question the wisdom of spending nearly a sixth of the NSF’s budget on the endeavor.

An example of the mooring and glider system used by OOI.  From

An example of the mooring and glider system used by OOI. From

A single Nature news feature does not represent the entire oceanography community, and I could not find similar commentary about OOI’s funding elsewhere online.  However, Nature may be one of the few ways that scientists in other fields learn about current oceanography work, and the disapproving comments about OOI can be applied to many projects in which RVs are “invisible technicians.”  When OOI is paralleled with traditional projects involving live-and-in-person technicians, Nature’s objections to OOI appear weaker.  Not all aspects of the project may work, yet who has a perfect record in the laboratory?  Ships must return to the sites to perform periodic maintenance, and what field project doesn’t require follow-up?  OOI is staggeringly expensive, but could such work be done for less?  Antony Alder attached a metaphor to an intuitive concept, and the Nature news item could prompt scientists to forever link such criticisms to any invisible technician proposal.  The article does raise red flags that are unique to OOI and may in fact signal poor project planning, especially regarding future funding, but overall the objections are part of a broader discussion about approaches to oceanographic research.

The Resolution more or less fits the floating laboratory description, and such projects should absolutely be supported.  However, it seems unfair to pit the two RV paradigms against one another.  Sometimes, scientists will need to zip out, collect some samples, and float their laboratories right back home.  Alternatively, there is great value to having instant access to a wealth of in situ data about an ocean that is vastly underexplored.  Nature surely did not intend to malign all invisible technician projects, but it will be important in the future to ensure that such efforts are not condemned for complications inherent to autonomous ocean monitoring.

For more info:

Antony Adler article (may require subscription):

Nature JOIDES Resolution funding in peril editorial:

Nature JOIDES Resolution funding secured blog post:

Nature OOI news feature:


One thought on “Invisible technicians on the seven seas

  1. Pingback: UndertheCblog top ten: In honor of our 100th post | UNder the C

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