Woods Hole Sees Future in the "Blue Economy"

By Gwynne, Peter | Research-Technology Management, May-June 2015 | Go to article overview

Woods Hole Sees Future in the "Blue Economy"


Gwynne, Peter, Research-Technology Management


The US economy may be on the upswing, but one segment of the R&D enterprise--nonprofit research institutes--shows little evidence of sharing in that improvement. Many face serious declines in their budgets as a result of cuts in federal funding over the past five years and their failure to find alternative sources of support. Some have had to close their doors, while others have saved themselves by persuading better-financed academic partners to take them over, at the expense of some loss of independence.

But one research institute, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in southeastern Massachusetts, has taken a different approach, ft plans to take advantage of the increasing attention to the resources contained in earth's oceans, by developing technologies for advancing what WHOI president and director Susan Avery calls the "blue economy."

Taking this path requires a significant shift in the institution's business plan, from relying predominantly on government and academic funding to taking a broader approach to financial support that includes the commercial sector, and from an almost exclusive focus on basic research to a wider program that includes some applied work. Perhaps not surprisingly, the approach has drawn criticism from environmentalists and others, who assert that WHOI risks surrendering its academic integrity by partnering with the for-profit world.

The primary vehicle for the "blue economy" initiative is WHOI's Center for Marine Robotics. Established in 2012, the center aims to speed the development of robotic technologies for exploring the oceans. To achieve this goal, the new center will work with industry as well as academia. "Although marine robotics are their own industrial segment, they are a key enabling factor for a number of other industries, such as underwater oil and gas, that benefit from the value of remote underwater vehicles," says James Bellingham, who joined WHOI as the center's first director last year. "If you took those vehicles away, they could not longer drill or maintain and remove equipment."

WHOI's decision to make the new center's activities available to the for profit world has drawn criticism. Opponents of the change, including some former WHOI officials, argue that commercial partners could prejudice the institute's freedom to pursue any avenues of research it wishes and to publish the results of its endeavors openly. Bellingham acknowledges the possibility, but argues that the center has a responsibility to engage with industry. "We don't want to become a job shop for the industry," he says. "But you can't ignore that industrial activity is moving into the ocean and significantly affecting the ocean. We have a job to engage with that. Though this is a pure science organization driven by the need to understand the planet we live on, it's important to talk about how that information will be applied. We hope it will better manage human interaction with the marine environment."

Another Path to Financial Security

Transitioning to an alternative source of support is hardly new for WHOI, which was founded in 1930. For several years after World War II, it relied on block grants from the US Navy, which funded research in such areas as physical oceanography, acoustics, and marine mammals. Later, the National Science Foundation became a prominent source of support, funding projects by individual members of the institute. But since the financial crash of 2008, and the consequent introduction of sequestration, federal government agencies have significantly reduced their support of basic research. "So we have to look at what the institution will evolve to next," Avery says.

The fate of other nonprofit research institutes illustrates the urgency of WHOI's need to chase fresh funding. Three years ago, for example, the Boston Biomedical Research Institute closed down, unable to replace reduced funds from the National Institutes of Health. …

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