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US ocean drilling programme slims down

joides260.jpgPosted on behalf of Nicola Jones

The Integrated Ocean Drilling Programme (IODP), famous for collecting sediment cores from the seafloor that catalogue past temperatures and sea levels going back tens of millions of years, is cutting back its planned missions for 2012 in response to expected budget restrictions from the US National Science Foundation (NSF).

The US ship JOIDES Resolution – one of two primary ships used by the international drilling programme – is now expected to go on just three expeditions next year, compared to five in 2010, and four currently planned for 2011. It will spend just 6 months at sea, compared to 8 months in recent years. (Specifically they have delayed expedition 341 – a mission focusing on southern Alaskan shores – until 2013.)

The programme has been hit by the rising cost of fuel, which have gone up by more than 30% in 2011 alone, Divins writes, and a light funding allocation from the NSF that can’t support a full year of research for their drill ship. The NSF’s budget request for 2012 has forced the expedition slim-down. “I am extremely troubled by this news and the implications for the future of scientific ocean drilling,” wrote David Divins in an e-mail alert to colleagues. Divins, who is director of the Ocean Drilling Programs for Ocean Leadership, a Washington, DC-based organization that helps to co-ordinate US IODP activities, says the programme is in the midst of a “funding crisis”.

Neither the United States or Japan – the IODP’s two main funders — have been able to come up with the money to do what the programme wanted to do this year, NSF programme director for the IODP James Allen told Nature. The problems aren’t necessarily specific to the IODP; they reflect general budget cuts across science as national governments tighten their belts.

The NSF’s budget for 2012 has yet to be set, and it is unclear how Japan’s science budget will be affected by their recent earthquake and tsunami. On top of all that, the Japanese ship Chikyu is currently in dry dock for repairs, which has forced the cancellation of expedition 337. So the IODP’s situation may yet get worse.

Photo credit: William Crawford, IODP/Texas A&M University

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    Michael J Passow said:

    This dimunition of the ocean drilling program will not only affect the scientific discoveries, but also the science education based on ocean drilling. Having working with drilling scientists in many programs aimed at teachers, I have seen the impact and enthusiasm that comes from discussing what happens at sea and what has been learned. Teachers will no longer be able to bring these back to their students. It’s another blow to helping create the next generation of scientists.

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