NSF's Commitment to the Deep
Dr. Rita R. Colwell
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
NRC Symposium on
Fifty Years of Ocean Discovery
October 30, 1998
It is a genuine pleasure for me to be here to celebrate
fifty years of ocean discovery and to be able to join
you in planning for the next fifty years.
The oceans have intrigued and attracted human populations
for centuries. There isn't an activity more compelling
than the search for knowledge and understanding of
As you know, I have spent most of my career on or near
the ocean, but I also bring a more personal perspective
to ocean discovery.
My husband Jack and I are racing sailors, therefore
the sea is our recreation but also an arena of challenge
and discovery in another dimension.
And my own research into cholera is directly related
to the oceans and their influence on weather and climate.
The history of cholera reveals a remarkably strong
association with the sea. El Niņo brings rain, an
influx of nutrients from land, and warm sea surface
These conditions are associated with initiating plankton
blooms. A single copepod can carry many V. cholerae
I will spare you from further details. Suffice to say
that those details have engaged me in a 3-decade research
It is especially fulfilling to be here today, in my
still new role as Director of the National Science
Foundation, to talk about ocean discovery, past, present,
Many of you have been active participants in NSF's
wide-ranging and significant history in ocean research.
The Foundation is grateful for your commitment and
the excellent work you have done.
We are also proud of both our primary role in ocean
discovery and our role as a collaborator with other
institutions, other agencies, and other nations.
The pervasive, powerful, mysterious, and bountiful
forces of the oceans on the planet are evident not
only in science but also literature.
Seneca, one of Rome's leading intellectuals in the
mid-first century (AD) spoke of the ocean in one of
his plays. He wrote, "An age will come after many
years when the Ocean will loose [loosen] the chains
of things, and a huge land lie revealed..."
This has been variously interpreted in different historical
eras. Christopher Columbus' son, Ferdinand, thought
the comment foretold his father's discovery of the
New World in 1492.
Those same words today, in relation to ocean discovery,
signify to me that the next fifty years in ocean research
will be truly extraordinary.
Although Columbus' son thought the reference to a "huge
land...revealed" was the discovery of the Americas,
those now working in ocean science might well think
of that "huge land" as the abyssal regions of the
ocean that we have only begun to explore. Sophisticated
tools and technology are changing every aspect of
science -- from writing a grant proposal, to the data
we gather, and to methods of data collection and analysis.
The impact of the new tools and technology on the way
we do oceanography has been revolutionary.
NSF supports this revolution and its expanding diversity
into robotic vehicles, permanent seafloor observatories,
new optical and acoustic imaging methods, long-term
moorings, and the vast opportunities opening up in
satellite communications. These technological leaps
and others to be made will transform the ocean sciences.
The academic research vessel fleet, the Joides Resolution,
and the ALVIN are the precursors of the robotic eyes
and ears that mark a whole new era in oceanography.
In the late 70s, researchers, with the help of the
workhorse ALVIN, were able to explore areas like the
volcanic terrain of the East Pacific Rise. Their findings
changed our entire understanding of the deep ocean.
They found unique ecosystems teaming with life supported
by the geothermal energy given off by the Earth's
inner heat. This discovery was possible with the technological
capability of ALVIN.
Today, oceanography continues to evolve from an exploratory
endeavor to efforts that require an ability to make
observations of ocean processes over periods of years.
Recent advances in technology have enabled us to establish
the first permanent U.S. deep seafloor observatory
that is connected to shore by a dedicated cable.
This observatory, called H2O, or the Hawaii - 2 Observatory,
sensed its first earthquake this week, a magnitude
5.7 quake near Papua, New Guinea. Needless to say,
this has generated tremors of excitement on land.
This new ability to continuously receive and record
ocean data and to communicate with scientific instruments
on the seafloor will greatly advance our knowledge
and predictive capabilities in ocean science.
Nonetheless, even with this ever-expanding capability,
we all know that scientists have explored relatively
little of the deep sea and ocean floor.
Given the fact that our planet's predominant geographical
feature is ocean, approximately 70%, some have suggested
that the name Earth is a misnomer, that we should
have more aptly called ourselves Water.
No matter the name, it is our interest and investment
in the ocean sciences that counts. These have serious
implications for our future prosperity and survival.
Historically, civilizations developed at the water's
edge. Today, there are 16 cities in the world with
a population of over 10 million. Thirteen of those
cities are along coastlines.
And the present is not unlike the past, at least in
the United States. According to a recent survey from
the Economist Magazine, "...in America, almost
half of all new residential development is near the
ocean, and people are moving there at the rate of
3600 a day."
The sustainability of urban and altered ecosystems
challenges our best scientific knowledge and opens
new directions for research.
The many dimensions of an increasing world population,
combined with the power of technology, have changed
our global environment.
There is both opportunity and responsibility for the
science community here. Going back to Seneca's lines,
"An age will come after many years when the Ocean
will loose [loosen] the chains of things..."
That suggestion, which dates back some 1900 hundred
years, has a certain currency about it today.
A new, multifaceted idea has begun to take shape as
a research direction, as well as a social understanding.
I refer to this concept as biocomplexity, a word not
yet familiar to most of the scientific community.
The oceans play a significant role in the biocomplexity
Biocomplexity is not a synonym for biodiversity. It
includes and reaches beyond biodiversity.
When we speak of sustaining biodiversity, we mean primarily
maintaining the plant and animal diversity of the
planet, a very important goal.
However, biocomplexity speaks of a deeper concept.
It is not enough to explore and chronicle the enormous
diversity of the world's ecosystems.
We must do that...but also reach beyond, to discover
the complex chemical, biological, and social interactions
that comprise our planet's systems.
From these very subtle, but very sophisticated interrelationships,
we can tease out the fundamental principles of sustainability.
Without a doubt, the oceans form the largest, most
formidable, and even perhaps the least explored and
understood of those systems.
However, our survival as a human species, and the ecological
survival of the entire planet, will depend on our
ability to achieve what is a truly interdisciplinary
Over many centuries, ocean travel has allowed us to
discover the shape and size of the planet and to acquaint
ourselves with its diverse cultures and commodities.
Many hundreds of generations have fed themselves from
the enormous variety of fish and seafood. We have
taken this for granted and, out of ignorance, often
abused instead of used, this bounty.
We are only recently discovering the hidden understandings
and more subtle complexity of the sea.
The economic and biomedical potential of the sea is
just beginning to be realized.
With the discovery of marine organisms that can thrive
in extreme environments of heat or cold, all of the
old truths about conditions required for life, have
been tossed to the winds. Results of on-going studies
support the possibility that life originated near
hydrothermal vents deep in the ocean.
The microorganisms found there today appear to be genetically
among the oldest on Earth.
Our current knowledge of thermophiles and psychrophiles
has broad implications for the future.
The enzymes produced by thermophiles currently have
widespread application in biotechnology. Although
biotechnology is a young field, it has already burgeoned
into a $40-billion-dollar-a-year industry.
Marine biotechnology has applications in medicine,
agriculture, materials science, natural products,
chemistry, and bioremediation.
It is estimated that aquaculture, just one branch of
marine biotechnology, will be relied upon heavily
to help meet world food needs.
While world fisheries are over-exploited and/or commercially
extinct, world population burgeons and world food
In addition, aquaculture can produce organisms used
as biomedical models in research, reservoirs for bioactive
molecule production, and organisms useful in bioremediation.
Clearly, we are just at the beginning of an exciting
era in ocean discovery and ocean science. What lies
ahead will have increasing impact on our daily lives.
Our task will be to educate the public about the economic
importance and new environmental understanding that
continued work in ocean discovery will bring.
Ocean science can no longer be viewed as an esoteric,
"off-shore" discipline. It is mainland and mainstream.
The health and bounty of our oceans are issues of
- Centuries ago, the oceans served as our vehicle
for learning about distant peoples and distant
lands. Only recently are we learning about the
ocean's cyclical control of the planet's climate.
- The bounty of the oceans has fed human populations
since the beginning of time. We are now acutely
aware of how fragile that food supply can be.
- For centuries, human populations have been vulnerable
to the forces of weather and climate; many of
them are triggered by the oceans.
- Today we have tools and knowledge to predict the
onset of severe weather cycles months before their
occurrence and prepare for the impact.
- Nineteen hundred years ago, Seneca predicted that
many years in the future "the Ocean will loose
[loosen] the chains of things."
- Today we are unlocking the very essence of those
words with tools and equipment of unrivaled sophistication.
The biocomplexity of the Earth's major systems are
the very "chains of things."
And so what does it mean to speak of NSF's commitment
to the next fifty years of ocean discovery?
It means investment, imagination, and a focus on interdisciplinary
It means boldly pushing the frontiers of our knowledge
while pursuing their economic, social, environmental,
and medical applications.
It means that understanding and initiating sustainable
strategies for the planet will depend heavily on ocean
It means bringing the importance of the oceans to the
forefront of public understanding.
It means that we enter our next fifty years of ocean
discovery with grand expectations to fulfill.