Expert Report

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.

Through direct exploration of the subseafloor, U.S.-supported scientific ocean drilling programs have significantly contributed to a broad range of scientific accomplishments in Earth science disciplines, shaping understanding of Earth systems and enabling new fields of inquiry. The programs' technological innovations have played a strong role in these accomplishments. The science plan for the proposed 2013-2023 program presents a strong case for the continuation of scientific ocean drilling. Each of the plan's four themes identifies compelling challenges with potential for transformative science that could only be addressed through scientific ocean drilling, although some challenges appear to have greater potential than others. Prioritizing science plan challenges and integrating multiple objectives into single expeditions would help use resources more effectively, while encouraging technological innovations would continue to increase the potential for groundbreaking science.

Key Messages

  • U.S.-supported scientific ocean drilling programs have been very successful, contributing significantly to a broad range of scientific accomplishments in a number of earth science disciplines. Amongst other accomplishments, scientific ocean drilling has advanced understanding of solid Earth cycles, revealed the flow of fluid and microbe ecosystems within the seafloor, and gathered extensive information on Earth's climate history.
  • Each of the four themes within the science plan identifies compelling challenges with potential for transformative science that can only be addressed by scientific ocean drilling. Some challenges within these themes appear to have greater potential for transformative science than others. In particular, studies of the subseafloor biosphere present opportunities to identify microbes that could be useful to humans, and continuing studies of past climate could provide insight into the global and regional climate change predicted for the future.
  • The scientific ocean drilling community should establish a mechanism to prioritize the challenges outlined in the science plan in a manner that complements the existing peer-review process. The plan sets out four research themes—climate and ocean change, biosphere frontiers, Earth connections, and Earth in motion—and presents 14 scientific challenges within these themes, but there was little guidance as to which of the 14 challenges are most important.
  • Using legacy data and samples to their maximum capabilities will continue to increase the scientific value of the scientific ocean drilling programs. Expanded use of legacy materials could help, for example, with prioritization of drilling objectives in the next phase of ocean drilling.
  • From the earliest stages of proposal development and evaluation, possibilities for increasing program efficiency through integration of multiple objectives into single expeditions should be considered by proponents and panels. Although several natural points of synergy between challenges and themes are well described, the science plan would have been strengthened by a more detailed examination of the areas where natural integration could occur between and among the science challenges, which could help use resources more effectively.
  • Pathways for innovations in technology should be encouraged. Setting aside a small portion of scientific ocean drilling resources specifically to promote technological research and development could greatly increase the potential for groundbreaking science. Technology has helped play a vital role in achieving many scientific advances in previous scientific ocean drilling programs.
  • Formal evaluation of education, outreach, and capacity building activities should be implemented to demonstrate the broader impacts of scientific ocean drilling. Since its earliest days, scientific ocean drilling has actively engaged in education and outreach, including primary and secondary, undergraduate and graduate education, and non-research-related activities.