Robert Ballard, fittingly, called me from the beach. Fitting because it's hard to picture one of the world's foremost ocean explorers—the man who found the wreck of the Titanic, a man who has conducted more than 120 deep-sea expeditions—ever straying too far from the open water.
In his 55-year career, Ballard told me he's seen interest in ocean exploration—and the funding that comes with it—ebb and flow. And right now, we're in an ebb.
"I don't think I've heard our current president ever even say the word 'ocean,'" Ballard said. "That doesn't help."
The slice of the US federal budget carved out for scientific research dipped to just 4 percent in 2015, compared to 10 percent in 1968, according to a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At the same time federal funding has shrunk, the number of scientists in this country has ballooned, and the cost of doing research has grown. There are more people scrambling to split an ever-shrinking piece of the pie.
It's created a desperate situation for researchers across scientific disciplines who are spending more and more of their time writing proposals for grants that are getting doled out to fewer and fewer scientists. Ocean exploration (poking around in parts of the sea that are yet unexplored, which is most of it) and ocean research (marine projects that aim to answer specific scientific questions) are no exception, and many experts told me it's particularly difficult to get funding for this field of study.
This is in spite of everything the ocean has to offer. Along with the scientific discoveries awaiting us in the deep—from new species to environmental features that don't exist on land—Ballard pointed out there are important economic resources below the surface as well: oil and gas, mineral deposits, fish. Even sanctuaries and conservation areas could provide new jobs as they're established and managed.
But without enough funding, the ocean remains one of our biggest untapped resources.
"We're saying 'no' to about 80 percent of proposals that are coming in," Lisa Clough, the head of the ocean section in the division of ocean sciences for the National Science Foundation, told me over the phone. "In the past, it was more like 30 percent approvals, but even when you're going from 30 percent to 20 percent, that's a significant difference."
Clough said federal funding for science has more or less flatlined over the past few years, while the costs of research have increased, which means every year the NSF has to turn down more and more proposals. The oceans division at the NSF actually has the second-highest budget after polar research for doling out funds, Clough said, but because ocean research and exploration often involves going to sea, rather than lab-based work, the costs of a single project can add up quickly.
"The current funding system is broken."
Researchers in the field echoed this problem. Bruce Appelgate, the associate director of ship operation at UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography, was quick to emphasize that his peers in other science disciplines have as much difficulty securing funding as those who do ocean studies. But he said the nature of ocean research often means that funding doesn't go as far.
"A boat is really a hole in the water surrounded by metal and you just pour money into that hole," Appelgate told me over the phone. He said the costs of ocean research are further amplified by all of the safety and environmental regulations that seafaring researchers have to abide by, and the costs of paying for an onboard crew.
And while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provides funding for ocean research and exploration, it's not the agency's sole function in the way NASA is a dedicated source of funding for space exploration. Instead, sea scientists are battling it out for the same funds as every other researcher in the country from the few federal outlets available.
Without a dedicated agency or enough general research funding to go around, ocean scientists have gradually turned away from the federal government and towards the private sector. Director James Cameron famously donated his Deepsea Challenger submarine—in which he previously achieved the first ever solo voyage to the deepest known point in the ocean—to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 2013. Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, and his wife bankroll ocean research projects through their foundation the Schmidt Ocean Institute. And for-profit private sector companies often help bridge the funding gap too.
"Two thirds of our budget is coming from the private sector," Ballard told me of Ocean Exploration Trust, the non-profit he created, which also receives funding from NOAA. (Fun fact: The trust's vessel, Nautilus, has a livestream of its voyages). "The federal government used to be our dominant supporter but as our program grew and theirs didn't, we had to move into the private sector."
And the next generation of ocean researchers is getting even craftier than that. Some have turned to traditional crowdfunding sites, like this Indiegogo campaign to fund a researcher's expedition to study the effects of plastic pollution. Others created a site of their own. Instrumentl, a scientific research crowdfunding site, was launched by three ecologists last year. It aims to do for scientific research what Kickstarter has done for tech and the arts.
"The current funding system is broken," said Angela Braren, one of Instrumentl's co-founders. "You have researchers spending half of their work week chasing after grants. We have so many brilliant, capable researchers. They're ready to go, they just need a few thousand dollars."
Braren said Instrumentl is still just getting off of the ground, but they've used some of their revenue—like other crowdfunding sites, Instrumentl generates revenue by skimming a percentage (8 percent) off the top of funds raised—to create a $500 grant specifically for ocean research. Scientists who raise at least $2,500 for ocean research on Instrumentl during the site's "oceans challenge" will be eligible for the prize. Braren told me it was because all of the founders have done ocean research and know first hand how valuable it is, as well as how difficult it can be to fund.
It caught the attention of Katherine Thompson, 29, a marine science PhD student at the University of Maine. Thompson is studying the effects of changing water temperature on northern shrimp in the Gulf of Maine, where she grew up. The research has big implications for the local economy: fishermen there catch shrimp in the winter months when lobsters move offshore, but the fishery has closed the last two winters due to low shrimp populations.
But Thompson has been struggling to secure any funding for her research, forcing her to borrow equipment and supplies from other labs. To get started, Thompson needs just $2,500 to buy a drying oven, some trays, temperature loggers, and a few other supplies so she can study these shrimp, but hasn't had any luck so far applying for traditional grants. So she turned to Instrumentl, where she'll host her crowdfunding campaign next week.
"I need my own equipment in my own lab," Thompson told me. "The thought was that maybe this could give me some short-term, not-too-distant future funding to get supplies, so I can obtain preliminary results to strengthen our grant proposals. Anything would help at this point."
There's a common refrain that the US should be investing its money in ocean exploration instead of space discovery, that we have so much more still to discover here on Earth before we worry about the rest of the universe. Ballard, too, lamented the fact that we have more detailed maps of the surface of Mars than we do of the ocean that surrounds our nation. It's not that he's against space exploration, but he's frustrated by the lack of interest for the dark, unexplored worlds at our doorstep.
"It's very hard for people to get excited about things they can't see," Ballard said. "It's hard to imagine that you're standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon when you can't see the canyon. You just see what's right in front of you, which is a cliff."
Hell or Salt Water is a series on Motherboard about exploring and preserving our oceans. Follow along here.