Woods Hole, Mass. — The Conrad, the 209-foot research vessel instrumental in collecting data to support the theory of plate tectonics (the theory that the surface of the Earth is divided into constantly moving plates), is sitting idle in St. Petersburg, Fla., this year.
Like other US research ships used by academic oceanographic institutions, the Conrad is idle because of insufficient funds.
Although total federal funding for ocean research amounted to $174.4 million last year compared with $116.1 million in 1974, funding actually declined 18 percent over the period when adjusted for inflation.
The funding problem has become an increasing threat to the future of the oceanographic institutions because rising fuel costs are taking more and more of their declining budgets.
In 1973 fuel for research vessels cost only 20 cents a gallon; now it is as high as $2 a gallon in foreign ports.
Research ships now cost $1,500 to $30,000 a day to operate; in 1973 they cost percent.
"The fuel costs problem is overshadowing our goals to study long-term global ocean problems, such as the effects of Co2 mixed down into the deeper parts of the ocean," says Dr. John H. Steele, director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
"I think we may unfortunately have to deal with smaller scale problems nearer to home. And although these are important, I don't think we should. We need to operate large ships on a worldwide basis. We're concerned with the larger scale problems that concern very practical issues. But if our funding remains at presenve levels, . . . We won't be able to tacle them," he says.
Funding already has curtailed research in such areas as the deep-sea hydrothermal vents, the seafloor sediments, and distribution of manganes nodules and other metalliferous deposits, and open ocean dynamics.
The institutions, which rely on large-scale voyages to collect research data, are cruising at lower speeds to save fuel. Many are planning research projects together to maximize the use of ship time and space.
In recent years, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has constructed six new intermediate size ships to reduce tonnage and hold operating costs down and has eliminated large older ships.
The Ocean Sciences Board is now studyying the possibility of an oceangraphic research ship with automatic sails.
In the last five years, the funding pinch has also cut back 25 percent of the number of oceanographers supported by the NSF, the major supporter of marine research.
All of the major academic oceanographic institutions on the East, Gulf, and West Coasts, Hawaii, Alaska, and the Great Lakes have been affected.
Support to the ocean sciences from other agencies, such as the Navy, the United States Geological Survey, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), also has decreased at a rate comparable to, or greater than, the decrease in NSF support.
And while funding has gone down, the number of oceanographers has increased. Between 1974 and 1978, the number of doctoral level oceanographers increased approximately 38 percent, to 2,600. since 1978 the growth has been constant.
Says Dr. Edward Miles, a social scientist at the Institute for Marine, Studies at the University of Washington. "The future of oceanography depends on federal funding policies and it depends on inflation. Balanced and steady [ federal] programs are needed, but I don't see a coherent strategy in the United States. The future is very doubtful."
In addition to he above cost problems, interntional cooperatio is expected to become more expensive due to the decisions pending at the Law of the Sea talks, Dr. Miles says.
Some institutions estimate formal international cooperation could hike the costs of their global research, says that more money would certainly help but that's not the only solution.
"The Navy, NSF, NOAA, and the other supporting agencies must begin to cooperate to make the most effective use of existing oceanographic facilities. We now have more facilities in terms of ships than programs to utilize them because of the declining budgets."
But however dim the situation appears, many oceanographers expect their field "to grow in adversity."
Dr. Manik Talwani, director of the Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory in New York, says, "Oceanography will come of age driven in party by societal pressures relating to energy and pollution problems. We have the tools to meet the challenges."