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Oceanographic Facilities Support: A Special Problem

NSF's charter does not mention equipment or facilities. From the outset, however, NSF policymakers decided that instrumentation and facilities were an inherent part of NSF's mission to support research. In the first round of research grants in 1952, some of the budget was earmarked to help institutions acquire instrumentation for shared use.

In oceanography, shared-use facilities, particularly research vessels, are an inextricable aspect of the enterprise. This was among the characteristics that made ocean science research proposals difficult for NSF program managers to handle. In an era when $15,000 was considered a generous grant budget, reviewers and program managers were hard-pressed to deal objectively with ship costs that might double or triple the budget of a project grant. Fieldwork would often be whittled back in budget negotiations to a point that undermined the research objectives. Sometimes program managers refused to pay for ship time at all, leaving researchers to get aboard a research vessel as best they could. Even in programs or sections that dealt primarily with oceanography proposals, ship costs were an unwelcome demand on research budgets, and funding for them was uncertain and uncoordinated.

Dealing with cooperative field programs and shared-use instrumentation was a particular problem in the life sciences. The BMS Program structure, as we have seen in prior sections, tended to cut across subdisciplines or academic departments. It was an effective way to compare the merits of competing research ideas, but it did not provide a good setting for looking at cooperative projects or shared-use research equipment. In 1958, responding to criticisms that largely originated with oceanographic institutions, BMS created a small fund for Special Programs and Instrumentation to deal with such proposals. By 1960, Facilities and Special Programs graduated to full program status in BMS. Interestingly, NSF's first grant for research ship operations came from this program.

NSF's diffuse program management was also a problem for the institutions that operated research ships. Sending a ship to distant waters is a complex and expensive operation, requiting months and sometimes years of preparation. It is only worthwhile if there is a body of research large enough to share the costs and justify the commitment. When the proposals for a single cruise or expedition were under review in many different NSF programs, with independent management styles and funding schedules, it was difficult to gather the critical mass of approved projects in a time frame that matched the planning period required for ship commitments.

In the early years, this problem was minimized because the Office of Naval Research (ONR) was the major founder of oceanography. Administratively, ONR used block-funded contracts that covered all of the research, instrumentation, and ship costs for its projects at a given institution. This provided a sufficient framework for ship operators to set plans for cruises into distant water. With these commitments in place, scientists could approach NSF for grants that might add to or complement the cruise objectives.

Throughout the 1960s, as NSF support for ocean research became a more significant fraction of the total funding for the field, the facilities support issue became more pressing. Dealing with the ship support problem was part of the mission of all of the internal NSF ocean science coordinating bodies mentioned in the preceding section. When an Oceanography Section was created in the Division of Environmental Sciences in 1967, an Oceanographic Facilities Program was part of its portfolio.

Research Ship Construction and Conversion in the 1960s

In 1962, AD/R established an Ad Hoc Panel on Grants and Contracts for Ship Construction, Conversion, and Operations to advise NSF on a set of procedures for handling these areas. Given the lack of focused NSF programs in ocean science and the chronic problems of paying for ship time for researchers, it is surprising to find that proposals for ship construction found support at NSF in this era.

In fact, NSF funded the construction of three oceanographic research ships and the conversion of several others during the early 1960s. BMS Facilities and Special Programs funded the construction of R/V Eastward (Duke University) in 1962 and R/V Alpha Helix (Scripps Institution of Oceanography) in 1965; MPE's Earth Sciences Program supported the design and construction of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's Atlantis II (1963). The justification for the funding of these ships underscores the fragmentation of NSF's treatment of the ocean sciences during that period. Each was proposed as a specialized facility, outfitted for the needs of the supporting discipline.

All three ships eventually became general-purpose oceanographic vessels, but the two BMS-funded ships kept their ties to special biological programs for more than a decade. Because ship construction was funded by standard research grants, NSF exercised little management direction of the design and construction projects, and the completed ships became the property of the institutions that built them. In later decades, this policy would be criticized, and NSF would alter its procedures to be more proactive in managing construction projects, retaining title, and assigning ships to operators through special contracts.

Project Mohole 1957-1967

From its start in 1957 until the project office closed its doors in 1967, Project Mohole was among NSF's most controversial undertakings. Mohole had its roots in the review of regular NSF disciplinary science projects. At an Earth Science Advisory Committee meeting in 1957, the concept

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