No Love for NURP

April 20, 2012 - via Science

A troubled undersea research program nestled within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has hit yet another snag. Earlier this year, the Obama Administration proposed eliminating the 32-year-old National Undersea Research Program (NURP), which currently has a budget of about $4 million. Now, despite pleas from deep-sea researchers to save NURP, a spending panel in the U.S. House of Representatives has announced it supports ending the program. In a report that accompanies a budget bill approved earlier this week, a House appropriations subcommittee responsible for NOAA proposes folding NURP into the agency's Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (OER), and "purging or maintaining" NURP's current fleet of submersibles and underwater robots.

It's unclear how much of NURP would remain after merging with OER. The budget report states that "NOAA shall use $4,000,000 from within funds provided to consolidate existing partnerships in the Gulf of Mexico and the central Pacific regions." That language provides a ray of hope for two NURP centers headquartered at the University of Hawaii and the University of Mississippi (there are two other regional centers based in Alaska and Florida).

It's obvious the House panel wants to keep parts of NURP, says John Wiltshire, director of the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory (HURL) at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu. But the report goes on to focus on supporting autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV)—robots that operate independently of a support ship—and that's not encouraging for HURL, Wiltshire adds. That's because his center runs two of the three manned research submersibles based in the United States, as well as a new remotely operated vehicle. It does bode well for the University of Mississippi, which runs NURP's AUV, the Eagle Ray, Wiltshire adds.

NURP is no stranger to reorganization or budget cuts. It has been a part of OER since 2008, and in recent years has limped along on drastically reduced funding—going from a high of $18 million nearly a decade ago to its current $4 million budget. When the president's 2013 budget request sought to ax NURP entirely, deep-sea researchers started pleading their case before lawmakers. Wiltshire says he has spoken to the staff of Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), a powerful member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, about saving some part of NURP, and he is hopeful that the tide may yet turn in the program's favor.

ED Note: Research indicates the report mentiond in the article was actually a Senate Appropriations Committee report, quoted below.

Senate Appropriations Committee Report of Apr 19 2012 Rpt 112-158

Ocean Exploration.—The Committee supports the proposed termination of the National Undersea Research Program [NURP]. Fo the benefit of maintaining Ocean Exploration’s advanced technology and at-sea capabilities, NOAA shall use $4,000,000 from within funds provided to consolidate existing partnerships in the Gulf of Mexico and the central Pacific regions into the Ocean Exploration program. As part of the 2013 spend plan, NOAA shall provide the Committee with an inventory of all NOAA-owned assets that are part of the former NURP program and a plan for either purging or maintaining these items from within the agency’s inventory.

The Committee supports the use of autonomous underwater vehicles [AUV] throughout the agency and believes that NOAA can achieve significant savings by using long endurance, long range autonomous underwater vehicles that can operate continuously for months at a time with little or no ship support. These vehicles could also provide critical science and research information on yet unexplored areas of the ocean including under-ice areas in the Arctic and Antarctic.

Within 120 days of enactment of this act, NOAA shall provide the Committee with a report detailing: which programs throughout the agency are currently supporting AUV operations; how much funding NOAA has provided for AUV operations and research in the past 3 years, broken out by project; and the requirements for using AUVs to conduct future NOAA missions. National Sea Grant College Program.—The Committee provides

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Author:Jane J. Lee

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