Federal funds slip, but researchers remain confident of independence
By Bryan Bender | Globe Staff May 25, 2014
Steve Haines for the Boston Globe
Susan K. Avery, the president and director of the Woods Hole institution, walked with Laurence P. Madin, its executive vice president and director of research.
FALMOUTH — Its famed research vessels and scientists are arrayed across the globe, installing weather instruments off the Cape, tracking water currents in the Labrador Sea, monitoring monsoons in India, and measuring melting ice in Antarctica.
In these and other ways, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is playing a leading role in raising the alarm — and scientific understanding — of the perils of climate change.
But now the nonprofit institution, facing a severe budget crunch as federal research funding is slashed, has a very different sort of venture in the offing: helping oil and gas companies identify new sources of the very fossil fuels believed to be damaging the environment.
The potential that Woods Hole’s world-renowned expertise in deep water exploration could become a new tool for oil firms — through its newly established Center for Marine Robotics — is troubling to some environmental groups and others who worry the institution’s scientists could be co-opted by private interests if they are forced to rely too heavily on their support for research.
“It is a real problem,” said Walter H. Munk, a professor of oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., which is part of the University of California, San Diego. His university has received money from corporate sponsors. “You have to be quite sure you are getting the money in circumstances that don’t limit your [scientific] freedom,” Munk said.
In the coming days, according to officials at Woods Hole, the institution is set to sign agreements with Saudi Aramco, the primary oil company owned by the Saudi government, to study the potential for “hydrocarbons” in the Red Sea. It is also preparing to ink a deal for a “simulation study” on behalf of the Italian oil company Eni, while it has half a dozen other proposals in the works with unnamed corporations, the officials said.
Yet earlier this month, Woods Hole coauthored the Obama administration’s National Climate Assessment, which partly blamed hydrocarbons for causing climate change and damaging oceans.
“In addition to causing changes in climate, increasing levels of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities have a direct affect on the world’s oceans,” the report found, particularly an increase in levels of acidity, which it said are a threat to marine life.
Woods Hole has historically received most of its funding from federal research grants, which has helped ensure its independence. But cutbacks at a variety of agencies — and a near-halving of its Pentagon research dollars in the last three years — has prompted it to seek new sources of funding.
Global Climate Change