Expert Report

Critical Infrastructure for Ocean Research and Societal Needs in 2030 (2011)

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Report in Brief >>

U.S. ocean research depends on a broad range of ocean infrastructure assets—the national inventory of ships and other platforms, sensors and samplers, computational and data systems, supporting facilities, and trained personnel. In order to ensure that essential infrastructure is available for both fundamental research and issues of social importance in 2030, a coordinated national plan for making future strategic investments is necessary. A growing suite of infrastructure will be needed to address urgent societal issues in coming years, such as climate change, offshore energy production, tsunami detection, and sustainable fisheries. This report identifies major ocean science questions anticipated to be significant in 2030, defines the categories of infrastructure needed to support such research over the next two decades, identifies criteria that could help prioritize infrastructure development or replacement, and suggests ways to maximize investments in ocean infrastructure.

Key Messages

  • Establishing and maintaining a coordinated national strategic plan for shared ocean infrastructure investment and maintenance is essential to build the comprehensive range of ocean infrastructure that will be needed in coming years. Such a plan would focus on trends in scientific needs and advances in technology, while taking into account factors such as costs, efficient use, and the capacity to cope with unforeseen events.
  • Using input from the worldwide scientific community, a range of recent government plans, task force documents, research planning assessments, and a review of primary literature, the committee identified compelling research questions anticipated to be at the forefront of ocean science in 2030. These research questions fall under four themes: enabling stewardship of the environment; protecting life and property; promoting economic vitality; and increasing fundamental scientific understanding.
  • Based on trends in the use of ocean infrastructure over the last two or more decades and on the major research questions forecast for 2030, the committee identified overarching infrastructure needs. For example, the committee anticipates research vessels that allow scientists to go to sea will continue to be the most essential piece of ocean infrastructure; and that expanding the current network of 3000 Argo floats will allow further study of the ocean's physical, biological, and chemical processes.
  • Continued developments in ocean infrastructure increasingly depend on innovations in other fields, including engineering and computer science. This is in part due to decreases in funding for high risk, high reward research and development of novel ocean research technologies. To foster innovation and technological advancements in the ocean sciences, federal agencies will need to encourage a risk-taking environment for the development of new infrastructure, which is difficult under the current systems of research funding.
  • The committee devised criteria that could help agencies prioritize investments, taking account of issues such as whether the infrastructure can help address more than one research question, the quality of the data collected using the infrastructure, and future technology trends. The committee concluded that the development, maintenance, and replacement of ocean research infrastructure should be prioritized in such a way to maximize the benefits from the infrastructure. This type of economic optimization includes consideration of factors such as: 1) Usefulness of the infrastructure for addressing important science questions; 2) Affordability, efficiency, and longevity of the infrastructure; and 3) Ability to contribute to other missions or applications.
  • Federal agencies can maximize the value of ocean infrastructure by following a number of best practices, including efficiently managing resources, providing broad access to data and facilities, fostering collaboration at many levels, and enabling the transition from research to broader use. Conducting formal reviews of ocean infrastructure assets approximately every 5-10 years would help ensure the infrastructure remains useful across the full range of ocean science research needs.

About this Report

Authoring Body:

Committee on An Ocean Infrastructure Strategy for U.S. Ocean Research in 2030

Primary Board:

Ocean Studies Board


Arctic Research Commission; Department of Energy; Environmental Protection Agency; Food and Drug Administration; Joint Chiefs of Staff; Marine Mammal Commission; Minerals Management Service; National Aeronautics and Space Administration; National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; the National Science Foundation; U.S. Geological Survey