Whether on land or at sea, the 70 or so professors doing research at Scripps Institution of Oceanography are always conscious of political events taking place in Washington.
But their attention is perhaps more focused than ever on the national debate surrounding the world's changing geopolitical equations and the future of U.S. defense spending.
Oceanography--a field central to the mission of the world-renowed University of California research facility in La Jolla, as well as a handful of similar research centers in the nation--depends heavily on federal support.
The U.S. Navy in particular has long supported basic ocean-related research in a unique 45-year relationship between the military and U.S. universities. A host of subjects--from underwater sound propagation to chemical detection to plankton distribution--owe their development in large part to funding from the Office of Naval Research.
Although the National Science Foundation has come to the fore in national oceanographic funding during the past two decades, Navy support still accounts for almost a quarter of the annual $70-million Scripps budget. It encompasses faculty projects, even at times when the work has only minimal, and often unclear, relationships to military uses.
Any substantial change in Navy dollars could ripple through the oceanographic communities in important ways, says Edward Frieman, director of Scripps, and affect not only specific research but the nation's ability to maintain an educational base considered critical to international competitiveness.
So far, top Navy researchers in Washington have attempted to minimize apprehension among the nation's oceanographers by maintaining existing funding and even augmenting proposed budgets, in large part because they know that the biggest beneficiary of basic ocean research is likely to be the ocean's biggest user.
But both Scripps and Navy officials realize that long-term changes in support are inevitable and that plans must be drawn now for dealing with a new environment.
"Scripps is a microcosm for the social trends influencing research over the next decade," Frieman said, noting that he spends a substantial amount of time with Washington officials, both in Congress and the Navy, either on the phone or in person.
Frieman is well placed to influence the trend, having served as the assistant secretary for the Department of Energy from 1979 to 1981 as well as having chaired numerous government and national academic committees and study groups on science-related issues.
Frieman sees a potentially severe threat to military funding, particularly if and when Congress is forced to choose between basic science research and closure of a military base or cancellation of a weapons system.
"It's easy to throw research overboard," Frieman warned. "There's no huge constituency for basic research in a (given) congressional district.
"We envision the reality that there will be an inevitable decline in funding," he said, adding that he hopes it will be counterbalanced by new sources of support among a variety of government agencies, citing as one example new cooperative programs to study global warming.
But officials in the Office of Naval Research are fighting hard to maintain their strong role in oceanographic areas.
"I'm proud to brag that the Navy really has the oldest existing government enterprise to support basic research in this country," said Fred E. Saalfeld, director of the ONR. Until the National Science Foundation was set up in the early 1950s, the Navy and the Atomic Energy Commission (later to become the Department of Energy) were the major engines for government support of basic science.
The ONR grew out of Navy academic links developed during World War II, when the Navy needed a lot of information quickly about a host of ocean-related problems, such as underwater sound propagation to protect submarines and surf conditions that could affect amphibious landings. Millions of dollars were pumped into the then-minor field of oceanography, including the then-quiescent Scripps facility on the La Jolla coast.
"Let me say that, regarding the ocean sciences, despite the rather gloomy forecasts about the Department of Defense budgets, the Navy has taken a positive stance toward science and technology," Saalfeld said.
The proposed ONR budget for fiscal 1991 that was sent to Congress by President Bush calls for a 2% increase in real growth after inflation, a figure the office plans to maintain annually through 1995, Saalfeld said.
"The secretary of the Navy has said that we will protect the (nation's) technological base," Saalfeld said, adding that "we must support a core of very smart people in research so that, if there is a scientific breakthrough, we can exploit it quickly for the Navy and the country." The Navy funds the numerous oceanographic research vessels, including the Melville, based at Scripps Pier, that universities use for their deep-water programs.
Almost all of the Navy's support of basic research at universities is unclassified. Classified applications of new or startling research takes place in Navy labs, such as the Naval Ocean Systems Center in San Diego.
"I know we are going to fight very hard in Congress for this," Saalfeld said, "and while every year is a budget battle--the results are always up to God and Congress--I feel that we have considerable support on Capitol Hill."
In any case, ocean sciences will have the highest priority for the Navy, Saalfeld said, conceding that Navy support of projects in chemistry, physics, materials research and other fields related to oceanography might see less growth.
"That is the trade-off you make when you manage science," he said.
Saalfeld said he predicts some critics of defense spending will ask why the Navy's support of basic research cannot be transfered to the National Science Foundation as part of the nation's so-called "peace dividend."
The NSF tends to wait for proposals from individual scientists eager for funding, he said, while the Navy, through liaison offices it maintains at American universities, identifies areas in which it asks scientists to draw up potential projects.
"For example, with Scripps we might try to stimulate proposals in acoustics or in ocean optics, in areas where the National Science Foundation might not get many proposals because the (subjects) may not be in the mainstream. We may be more willing to take risks on an idea."
Saalfeld said he is particularly interested in stimulating more acoustical research at additional American universities after years of steady declines in the number of academic specialists. The Navy also wants more talent developed in ocean optics.
Frieman agreed that continued Navy support is likely, although he is planning Scripps' future in anticipation of a reduced military role.
"Oceanography and its strong relationship to the Navy's mission isn't going to go away," he said, "but my vision is that oceanography needs new partnerships, new agencies of support."
To that end, Frieman strongly endorses projects such as the interagency U.S. Global Change Research Program, a billion-dollar, multi-year effort to document earth sciences on a global scale. Frieman has positioned Scripps to emphasize global warming research, which is a significant portion of the global change program.
"It's clear that global warming is now getting an enormous amount of attention," Frieman said, noting with some irony that Roger Revelle, an early Scripps oceanographer and prime mover in the creation of UC San Diego, was one of the first scientists to document a possible warming trend as far back as 1957.
"And, while the public hears about this, they think about the atmosphere and don't understand that the role of oceans is enormous in controlling the weather and the environment," Frieman said. "To understand the greenhouse effect and global warming, we have to learn much more about the ocean."
Already, top officials from the Department of Energy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have visited Scripps to talk about global warming research. The head of NOAA is a former Scripps graduate student.