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The Emergence of the National Science Foundation as a Supporter of Ocean Sciences in the United States

John A. Knauss

Graduate School of Oceanography, University of Rhode Island, and Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego


U.S. oceanography grew rapidly after World War II, and in the years immediately after the war, the Office of Naval Research, which began in 1946, provided most of the support and much of the leadership. The National Science Foundation (NSF) began in 1950, but for a number of years its support of oceanography was marginal except for biological oceanography. This began to change with the International Geophysical Year of 1957-1958, and by the time the International Decade of Ocean Exploration (IDOE) began in 1970, NSF had in place the organizational structure necessary to become the dominant player. The timing was excellent, because 1970 was the year of the Mansfield Amendment, which limited military support of science in universities to those programs of military relevance. NSF also housed the National Sea Grant College Program for a brief period, from its formation in 1967 to its transfer in 1970 to the newly established National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NSF policies have significantly influenced the course of science in the United States. Two policies specific to oceanography have contributed much to its strength and vitality. They are the NSF policy that assigns and supports ships through individual academic oceanographic institutions rather than through a single organization, and NSF' s development of a support structure that allows for and encourages large, multi-investigator, multi-institutional programs, a type of program that came to flower with the IDOE and continues today.

The long period of growth of American oceanography began with World War II. The war provided a jump start to a field that until then had few practitioners in the United States and little in the way of support. Harry Hess, who skippered a destroyer, used its echo sounder to explore the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and discovered flat-topped seamounts, guyots. Harold Sverdrup and Walter Munk developed the techniques for calculating the strength and time of arrival of ocean swell on landing beaches. Athelstan Spilhaus, then at Woods Hole, held the patent for the development of the mechanical bathythermograph, a device used to determine the range limitations of sonar, but also a device that taught us about the seasonal thermocline, and was later used by Fritz Fuglister and his Woods Hole colleagues for tracking the cold wall of a meandering Gulf Stream.

But as important as World War II was in providing opportunities for those few who were already engaged in marine science, I believe its most important oceanography legacy was that it introduced the study of the oceans to scientists from a variety of backgrounds who found themselves working at either Scripps or Woods Hole. Carl Eckart, Russel Raitt, Brackett Hersey, Allyn Vine, and a number of others never returned to their original disciplines. For anyone interested in this transition (at least for nonbiological oceanography), I highly recommend the Transactions of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). The difference between the AGU Transactions of just before and immediately after World War II is remarkable.

Because of the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the transition from wartime to peacetime science was smooth. ONR began in 1946, the year after the war ended. Many, of course, left Scripps and Woods Hole, the two big centers of World War II ocean research, to return to their earlier careers, but for those who remained, ONR was there to provide a wide range of support. The Bureau of Ships and other naval operations groups would continue to supply significant funds for a variety of research activities related to their military mission, but ONR allowed Scripps and Woods Hole to broaden their agendas.

And ONR ensured that oceanography would be sup-

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