Is Researching Oceans Worth the Cost? Oregon’s Example Says Yes!

George Waldbusser, PhD, , UCS | June 2, 2017, 3:22 pm EDT
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As an active research scientist working on climate change impacts on organisms of economic importance, it is easy to feel discouraged and frustrated by the politicization of science. Given how hard most of us actually work, and how much more money we could make elsewhere for less effort, it is easy to be frustrated by the criticism and attacks on climate science, particularly for early career scientists.

While it is easy to notice the attacks, it is perhaps harder to see the increasingly positive and strong public support for sustainable stewardship of our oceans. Today’s scientists are more engaged than ever with stakeholders, the public, policy makers, and politicians. Sea Grant is an organization that helps provide that bridge and turn research into actionable support for those who will benefit directly or indirectly from that research.

Nationally, Sea Grant funded research across the country includes everything from sustainability of marine resources, to understanding inundation from sea level rise, to reducing land-based pollution on coastal resources, visualizing ocean changes, etc. There are 33 Sea Grant programs nationally; in the last presidential race, 12 of those programs sat in states carried by Donald Trump. And within many blue states, there are coastal counties that were also carried by Trump. The ocean and the people who make their living from and benefit from it span the political spectrum, and we can all agree that healthy coastal economies depend on understanding our oceans 

The economic argument for keeping Sea Grant funding

Oyster at Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery. Photo by Oregon State University.

From a fiscal conservative standpoint, what is the cost and return on these investments in our oceans and their future? It is important to point out research investments are not entitlements. Estimates by Oregon Sea Grant put their current annual economic benefit at roughly $8.4 million, and that lacks many of the economic multipliers that could be included. Oregon Sea Grant receives approximately $2.4 million per year in federal funding, suggesting a return on investment of nearly $3.50 for every federal dollar invested into the program, or a 350% return on investment (ROI).

These federal investments in Sea Grant are matched by state contributions, thus leveraging funds and allowing state Sea Grant programs is to manage these resources to the benefit of local stakeholders (an approach that all political ideologies can agree upon). If we put this another way, the very top hedge fund investors often get returns on their investments of 15-20%, Oregon Sea Grant gets an ROI of between 160% (including state matching funds) or 350% (only federal investments).

Aggregated nationally, Sea Grant as a whole costs approximately $73 million in federal funds annually; cutting that funding (and assuming a national ROI similar to Oregon’s Sea Grant program) would be the equivalent of removing $255.5 million dollars annually from the US economy. This is why I have never understood why investments in science are always in political crosshairs. We mostly all understand it costs money to make money, and clearly research and Sea Grant generate large economic impacts for the relatively small costs. Specific examples abound, including here in Oregon during the oyster seed crisis from several years ago, research investments bolstered the $110M U.S west coast oyster industry that employs thousands in rural coastal communities.

I am optimistic that there will continue to be bi-partisan support for one of the things that has actually made America great: Research and Development; it has always been one of our greatest exports. We must remind our elected officials of how valuable research and science is to our country, and of the economic benefits of science. Who wouldn’t want over 100% returns on their investments? Research and science have been extremely profitable endeavors for our country, and we must continue to invest in them, if we are to continue to be great.



George Waldbusser received his Doctoral degree in Biological Oceanography at the University of Maryland. He teaches Biochemical Earth, Ocean Acidification and Bivalves, and Biostatistics, and his research focuses on, among other things, bivalves’ responses to acidifying waters in estuaries. Specifically, Dr. Waldbusser is interested in the role of organisms in modifying physical and biogeochemical processes in sediments, species interactions in sediments, coastal and estuarine acidification effects on bivalves, the importance of benthic habitats in biogeochemical cycling, structure and function of sedimentary habitats, and tidal flat ecology. He is currently being funded the Oregon Sea Grant and the National Science Foundation to research ocean acidification’s effects on oysters and other bivalves.

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