Challenges, Deep-sea and Budgetary

James Cameron's Deepsea Challenger submersible. Photo M. Thiessen, National Geographic/AP

Last weekend, film director James Cameron descended alone into the Challenger Deep of the Marianas Trench, the deepest known point in the world’s oceans. He was the third human to do so, and the first since 1960. Four days later, the British National Oceanography Center in Southampton announced it would be cutting 35 positions “at risk of redundancy” in the face of budget cutbacks. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.

While Cameron’s dive is tremendously exciting and his submersible is undoubtedly sweet, I can’t help but feel a slight unease when I think about their meaning. I don’t think I’m the only one. At Southern Fried Science, Andrew points out the obvious advantages of remotely operated submersibles over their human-carrying counterparts, defending them from charges of “unsexiness.” And Al and Craig over at Deep Sea News address a major source of this unease head-on, asking whether this expedition is “a scientific milestone or rich guy’s junket.” They argue that even if Cameron’s dive is a rich guy’s junket, it is still valuable as science and in the larger cause of ocean exploration. I think I agree with them, but I’m still a little uneasy.

Part of this unease is probably jealousy. When you’re a working scientist or graduate student, a large part of your professional attention is directed towards finding funding and support for your research and studies. This is always competitive, and often difficult and stressful. Success in Hollywood is of course also competetive, difficult, and stressful–but when it comes, it comes with millions and millions of dollars. So a degree of jealousy is unavoidable when a film director worth an estimated $650 million says something like this:

I seem to have that curse that once I imagine something being built, I have to build it.

That “curse” depends on money, and a lot of people would kill to be so hexed.

For me, though, the unease goes deeper than jealousy. The first few centuries of science were entirely aristocratic. It’s only in the past 50-100 years that the public has funded basic science on a large scale, enabling people who weren’t independently wealthy to conduct research. We shouldn’t get too misty-eyed, since a lot of this basic research was motivated by commercial hopes and military fears rather than a pure love of knowledge. But the funding was public, it was directed towards fundamental research, and it continues to produce amazing discoveries.

At the moment, though, the outlook for public research around the world is somewhat cloudy. The day after the news from the NOC, the Canadian government announced budget cuts to science and a shift from basic and environmental science to science done in collaboration with industry:

Earlier this week, Gary Goodyear, the minister of state for science and technology, said the NRC had begun to “lose its focus”, and that it would be transformed into a one-stop shop for businesses and offer concierge services to link businesses with federal programmes aimed at boosting innovation.

This is kind of chilling. There’s nothing wrong with industry funding research–as long as there are other sources of funding available. This is especially true for research areas that industry might not be particularly interested in…or perhaps actively uninterested in. Public health and the environment spring to mind. So does ocean exploration.

I don’t mean to come down too hard on Cameron here. Given the overflowing smorgasbord of less-worthy things he could be spending his millions on, I’m delighted that he’s chosen deep-sea exploration, and has made scientific data collection a central part of this expedition. And he has acknowledged the need for more funding for ocean science, as reported by Nature:

Cameron is hoping these that initial dives are just a start, because the current state of ocean exploration is “piss poor”, to his mind. “I think we’ve got to do better,” he says. “If it means getting private individuals together with institutions and bypassing the whole government paradigm, that’s fine. Maybe that’s what we need to do.”

But while I might agree with the diagnosis, I don’t agree with the prescription. Science needs sustained, reliable funding more than it needs fantastically wealthy patrons. It’s all too easy for wealthy donors to set the agenda for an entire field by swamping it with money–see, for example, the profound influence of the Gates Foundation on education “reform” and public health. This is the problem with philanthropy: what gets funded depends on what the rich feel like funding. I guess what I’m saying is I wish we could get people like Cameron (that is, the rich ones) to buy into “the whole government paradigm” more. Descending to the bottom of the ocean in a custom-built submersible is great. But advocating for publicly-funded research–and the taxes to support it–would be truly heroic.

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