Funding the Regional Class Research Vessels
By James Yoder
James Yoder, M.S. ’74, Ph.D. ’79, is an emeritus professor of oceanography and a fellow of The Oceanography Society. He was vice president for academic programs and dean at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. At GSO, Yoder was a faculty member from 1989 to 2005 and served as interim dean from 2000 to 2001.
The genesis of three new Regional Class Research Vessels (RCRVs), funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the design and delivery of which is led by Oregon State University, including one vessel (Narragansett Dawn) to be operated by the University of Rhode Island (URI), took place more than 20 years ago. It is not a simple story, and it required the persistence, patience and dedication of many individuals to guide this project from the conference room to the shipyard.
My role began October 1, 2001, the first day I showed up at NSF on loan from URI as the newly minted director of Ocean Sciences division (OCE). This was a great time to be at NSF. The Clinton administration had departed earlier that year leaving the federal government with a rare budget surplus. NSF Director, Dr. Rita Colwell had convinced the powers that be that NSF should double its budget over the next 5 years; the first significant growth in a long time.
My boss was GSO Dean Emerita Dr. Margaret Leinen, then serving as the assistant NSF director for Geosciences. Dr. Leinen held a budget meeting for her three division directors on my first day. She told us that Dr. Colwell wanted the divisions to incorporate funds for “midsize infrastructure” (1) in the anticipated budget growth, and this new priority was good news to me. I knew from discussions with my OCE section heads, Larry Clark, Bruce Malfait, and Mike Reeve, as well as as our ship guru, Dolly Dieter, that there were emerging division plans for a new Alvin, a new seismic ship and new oceanographic ships. This and other infrastructure projects became one of my major tasks for the next three years. (2,3)
In the early 2000s, there was growing interest and momentum among the federal agencies to renew the oceanographic research fleet. An interagency committee, Federal Oceanographic Facilities Committee (FOFC), chaired by Dr. Leinen and including long-time federal oceanographic stalwarts, like Office of Naval Research’s (ONR) Frank Herr and NSF’s Dolly Dieter and Mike Reeve, who had just issued a report recommending four new classes of oceanographic research ships: Global, Ocean, Regional, and Local. (4) Local class ships were to be built using state funds, whereas the U.S. Navy expressed interest in building the Ocean class. NSF had previously built oceanographic ships, both the Cape class (Cape Florida/Sur, Cape Hatteras) and the Intermediate class (Endeavor, Oceanus and Wecoma). It seemed logical to me (and Dr. Leinen agreed) for NSF to build the Regional Class Research Vessels (RCRVs) using midsize infrastructure funds. The FOFC report envisioned three RCRVs which were to be more capable than the Cape class although smaller than the Intermediate class, with a nominal length of about 150-160 feet. It was generally anticipated that the three ships would be operated by institutions on the East, West and Gulf coasts.
In 2001,the University of Delaware was in the process of building a very capable 146-foot Local class ship for about $12 million. In discussions with Dolly and Mike, we decided that a $25 million per ship budget cap was reasonable for a highly capable RCRV that would meet the criteria listed in the FOFC report. At that cost, the project would fall within the range anticipated for NSF’s midsize infrastructure projects. To get started, Dolly organized a community workshop in 2002 to develop ocean community recommendations for RCRV ship capabilities and specifications, keeping in mind a budget cap of about $25 million. As I recall, GSO Dean Emeritus Bruce Corliss, then at Duke University, attended the workshop and was an enthusiastic supporter of the RCRV program. In fact, there was general enthusiasm in the community for the NSF concept, although there was some grumbling about the budget cap and that the RCRVs were to be smaller than the existing Intermediate class ships.
Scientists generally do not appreciate having budget caps and other constraints for planning new programs. The preferred approach is for scientists to tell the feds what they need and want, and then it’s the feds’ problem to figure out how to deliver. Nevertheless, the workshop did yield community specifications acceptable to NSF. NSF also began negotiating with the U.S. Navy to oversee construction. NAVSEA, the U.S. Navy ship building group, was interested in the project in part because both NSF and the U.S. Navy thought there could be some synergy and cost savings between NSF-funded RCRV construction and Navy-funded Ocean class ship construction.
The RCRV project was going along more or less smoothly, (5) albeit with growing friction between NSF and NAVSEA on project costs, until the FY2005 federal budget was released in fall, 2004. That year’s budget was bad news for science. Tax cuts and the war in Iraq had wiped out the federal budget surplus and as a result, annual science budgets, including that of NSF, were cut or level-funded. The plan to double NSF’s budget in five years thus ended abruptly. That same fall, I planned to leave NSF and return to URI and left Acting OCE Division Director, Larry Clark, with a big budget problem. Larry had no choice but to stop the planning and funding for NSF’s RCRV project, as the project was simply too expensive to include within a level-funded OCE core budget. “Plan A” for the RCRV was now dead, and no “Plan B” was yet in sight. However, based on my experience working on a NASA ocean-color satellite project (SeaWiFS), which also had false starts before success, I believed there was at least some room for cautious optimism. There is an old saying among Arabs that goes something like, “Beware the nose of the camel.” The idea is that once a camel gets its nose in your tent, the body will soon follow. In 2004 and with respect to the RCRV, the nose of the camel was now in the tent, although it would take the efforts of many more people and many more years to get the body in.
Chief Brody (Jaws), “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” (6)
A 2007 U.S. government report (7) included the RCRV concept similar to the original FOFC report, but now with a $35 million-per-ship cost estimate. However, the sea-going oceanographic community as well as ship operators (e.g. URI, Oregon State University and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) were moving beyond that original concept, and like Chief Brody, were pushing for a larger boat. Some thought, for example, that RCRVs as specified in “Plan A” were simply too small to work effectively in the large swells off the west coast. Others pointed out that the emerging interest in interdisciplinary research required larger ship-going science parties, and hence more bunk and lab space. Furthermore, the U.S. Navy had agreed to build only two Ocean class ships (in addition to the R/V Kilo Moana), and there was also concern that replacing the Intermediate class ships with smaller and less capable RCRVs was a step backwards for U.S. oceanography. But how could NSF fund larger and significantly more expensive ships whose costs would be too high for midsize infrastructure funds? NSF’s Major Research Equipment (MRE) account was the only possibility, but there were significant obstacles. The competition for approval of an MRE project was very stiff, since this was also the account that funded big telescopes for astronomy, airplanes for atmospheric science, new facilities for Antarctic stations, super computers for all NSF science, etc. Furthermore, there were already three recent ocean projects supported by the MRE account—the large, ice-strengthened ship, R/V Sikuliaq, the new ocean drilling vessel and the $300 million-plus Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI). Fat chance getting yet another ocean MRE project approved in this highly competitive environment, or at least that was the conventional wisdom.
In July, 2010, Dr. David Conover, Dean Emeritus of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS) at Stony Brook University, took over as the OCE division director. Dr. Conover was not a sea-going oceanographer, although he clearly understood the importance of studying coastal and continental shelf waters and why highly capable research ships were needed for that work. Soon after joining NSF, Dr. Conover spoke to a committee on which I served. He told us that he had pitched the RCRV to a receptive National Science Board (NSB), NSF’s governing body. (8) Somehow, Dr. Conover and his boss, Dr.Tim Killeen, pulled a rabbit out of the hat and got the improved, larger and more expensive RCRV project on a path that could lead to funding from NSF’s MRE account. With strong support from the oceanographic community and with hard work at NSF, the RCRV project stayed on that path during the tenure of subsequent OCE division directors, Dr. Debbie Bronk (2013-2015) and Dr. Rick Murray (2015-2018). Funding for the project finally made the FY2017 NSF budget proposal, and construction started soon afterwards, while Dr. Terry Quinn was in the division director position. “Plan B” had come to fruition! The final cost to build the three ships now exceeds $400 million.
During the long planning phase and now during the construction phase, permanent employees at NSF, like Dolly Dieter, Bob Houtman and Brian Midson, did all the tough work behind the scenes to make the case for NSB’s approval, and following that approval, helped keep the project on track and on budget. In 2019, then GSO Dean Bruce Corliss solidified URI’s role by leading a successful proposal that funded URI and the other members of the East Coast Consortium (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and University of New Hampshire) to operate a new RCRV. In 2021, GSO Dean Paula Bontempi and URI President Marc Parlange chose Narragansett Dawn as the name for URI’s new ship from among the many names submitted for consideration. An eager GSO community awaits her arrival in 2024 more than two decades after Dr. Leinen’s FOFC report identified RCRVs as one of the priorities for a new class of ships in the oceanographic fleet-renewal plan.
The origin story of Narragansett Dawn illustrates how difficult it is to bring large and expensive government-funded projects to fruition and how long it can take. More important, it also illustrates that such projects do not just happen. Many people in government and in academia are required to do the hard work to initiate and make large projects happen. Many of them work behind the scenes without community recognition. I know that when I stand on the new dock as Narragansett Dawn arrives at GSO, I’ll be thinking of the contributions of those many people at NSF and in the broader community whose efforts over more than two decades successfully led to a beautiful new ship for ocean science.
- NSF defined midsize infrastructure as projects costing significantly less than $50M. More expensive infrastructure was supported from an NSF-wide account called the Major Research Equipment (MRE) account.
- Yoder, J.A. AGU/ASLO Ocean Sciences Meeting, 2002. Invited Talk, Ocean Science luncheon.
- Yoder, J. and A. Tenney. 2002. NSF: Entering the new millenium. Sea Technology. 43: 20.
- Division of Ocean Sciences. Fall/Winter 2001 Newsletter. Setting a course for the national academic research fleet. NSF 02-055.
- Division of Ocean Sciences. Fall, 2003 Newsletter. Division Director report by J.A. Yoder. NSF 04-003.
- Famous line by Police Chief Brody in the movie, Jaws.
- Interagency Working Group on Facilities (IWG-Facilities). July, 2007. Federal oceanographic fleet. Status report. National Oceanographic Partnership Program (NOPP).
- NSF is the only federal agency that has a governing body. One story has it that when NSF was created under President Truman in 1950, there was general concern about turning over a federal agency and its budget process to a bunch of scientists – adult oversight was needed. Hence, the NSB was formed to fill that role.