Overdue Questions on How Subsidized Research Vessels are Used

After sailing much of the eastern North Pacific for fun, Jim Christmann operated a university coastal research vessel for 11 years (and so understands the constant need for funding), before making the jump to the RV Shana Rae in 1986. He is currently exploring the formation of an association of independent West Coast research vessel operators and would welcome constructive feedback from either side of this discussion at jaxmann@shanarae.com.

I'm going to ruffle lots of feathers here, but I feel forced to do so after years of silence. My situation is admittedly localized, but there are others in the same quandary, and many Sea Technology readers will identify with one side of the issue here or the other. First, though, I give a respectful nod to the old friends whom I must question indirectly on some very difficult principles.

I've privately operated what I feel is an extremely versatile 50-foot coastal research vessel on the U.S. West Coast since 1986 for a range of scientific and regulatory bodies that surprises even me when I see them all together (www.shanarae.com). The RV Shana Rae has worked over 2,000 days at sea, handling everything from optical, seismic, video and acoustic gear to nets, weather balloons, shark cages, elephant seals, ROVs and AUVs, with no serious injuries at all. It's a proven boat, and it's in the hands of a 30-year veteran of the whole North American West Coast.

Pleased clients have included academic investigators from most U.S. coastal states, and a few from Europe and Asia, yet the immediate university/non-profit governmental marine research community here in central California has mostly avoided using this cost-effective local service in favor of each entity having its own vessel or fleet, or by primarily using each other's vessels. Other private sector vessel operators with whom I speak are troubled by this pattern as well.

Simply as a taxpayer, I have often wondered if anyone in these institutions has ever been asked how many days per year they might have more flexibly used services like ours, before matching the firm commitments they made to maintenance, berthing and the many other costs of operating vessels bearing their own logos. I can show for a 50-foot research vessel (I operate two) that this break-even point might arrive annually only after 60, 80 or more internal days at sea, and that a similar, publicly supported research vessel that is much less busy than this could be seen as a possible extravagance.

The 1990s were good for government coffers. Marine research has enjoyed a sustained wave of popular support, and the subsidized fleet has grown steadily to include smaller vessels funded entirely by single grants. I see signs of these operations beginning to hurt each other fiscally as things slow down, suggesting a glut of tax-supported vessels, even as I hear rumors of state programs inviting fishing vessels to be refitted as research vessels. I can only wonder if tax monies are being used at all carefully here, but there is an even more serious question that I feel needs scrutiny.

I have watched as some institutional vessels have taken on external fieldwork, flexibly including commercial projects. The taxpayer on the street would probably assume that a university research vessel supports teaching and/or research, yet I personally once lost a pre-dredging vibracore job weeks after the deadline of a federal sealed-bid process to a university vessel in the San Francisco Bay area. I also saw a large commercial survey project in my area for a fiber optic cable company go quietly to another academic institution through a nominal consulting firm staffed by alumni and graduate students using statefunded telephones and benthic gear. I could go on about outfall inspections that would be of interest to diving contractors everywhere, and there is no reason to believe that I've been aware of all or even most of these kind of activities.

Challenging this trend has always meant questioning the practices of old friends and/or potential clients-an approach I've avoided, despite growing frustration. However, with a climate-shift that indicates a sluggish time ahead for all concerned, I expect further unfair competition from the subsidized fleet into the private sector unless someone pointedly objects. The diminishing opportunities for my vessels to work in the vicinities of vastly more expensive subsidized vessels means that I must now take this difficult step.

It seems only a few years ago that any hint of "science for sale" was considered a stain on the white lab coat of scientific credibility. Not only does the crossover into commercial work weaken the same job market that these institutions are training people to enter, it also jeopardizes the popular faith in science that is the bedrock source of funding.

In this cynical era of political and corporate scandal, how far off can a damaging "Tenuregate" be surrounding some faculty member's real or perceived abuse of funding in a spin-off business, destroying public respect for all academic work? My career has been consistently supportive of scientific study, but I now have to ask how well science can really afford to sell its own credibility.

Obviously, I cannot personally cause universities, non-profits or agencies to operate any more cost-effectively than they want to, but I can open the discussion of how far outside their own missions they can operate ethically or legally, and how realistically their pricing reflects the true costs of the subsidization they enjoy. I know that I am not alone in having these concerns. I encourage others to voice theirs and would welcome legal advice and/or legislative leadership in this area.

Highly motivated private enterprise can in many cases provide the leanest, most flexible approach to a given endeavor-and, yes, probably without some of the frills. As belts tighten everywhere, it might be a propitious time for the marine scientific community to consider at least a partial use of more responsible fiscal and ethical choices, wherever they can be identified.--Published in the April 2003 issue of SEA TECHNOLOGY