Who Will Fund the Census of Marine Life?

i-91498ca946aae3632c36cc002ffd2c40-logox3.gifTen years ago Fred Grassle, a marine biologist with deep-sea tendencies, and Jesse Ausubel, program director for Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, started conversing on an initiative to document the biodiversity of the oceans. That program, the Census of Marine Life, started in 2000 with the goal "to advance a major new international observational program to be completed by 2010 to assess and explain the diversity, distribution, and abundance of marine life." That program lead to the support of several field projects and expeditions (currently over 15), the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS), several initiatives focused on specific environments (abyssal plains, vents, seeps, seamounts, corals, continental margins, etc.), conferences, taxonomic workshops, and much more. Publications from CoML just from 2005-2008 number over 500.

The project is to be completed by 2010 or at least that is when the Sloan Foundation will discontinue its funding of the project. The Sloan Foundation should not be viewed poorly for this. In 2006, the foundation funded over 11.5 million dollars for CoML projects. Assuming for other years they gave a comparable amount, their total contribution would be well over 100 million dollars.

The question on everyone's mind as 2010 rapidly approaches is "Who will fund CoML next?" Given the success of CoML so far, although improvements could be made, the loss of such a program is a travesty. Indeed both formal and informal discussions at recent conferences and workshops have addressed such an issue. The word on the street is that currently there is no interest of a government agency to continue CoML. And why would they? With most government agencies (NSF, NOAA, etc) already in experiencing budget limits. Bush proposed a 13.6% budget increase, to $6.85 billion for NSF, however most of this appears to be dedicated to funding education, math and physical sciences, engineering, and computer sciences. Even the Ocean Observatories Initiative at $331 million is at least temporarily off the table.

NSF Director Arden Bement says that his decision last year to hold firm to a no-cost-overruns policy led to bumping OOI from the queue of projects in NSF's major research facilities account until OOI leaders had nailed down all aspects of the project. Bohlen notes that a delay will likely mean a higher overall cost for the project, an argument that Bement accepts. "I'd be lying if I said anything else," Bement told Science. "But it's a balancing act; we also need to follow our rules."

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