Science funding in the U.S. fluctuates with the whims of Congress, and losing research dollars can mean shuttering a lab for good. So clever ocean scientists have found ways to save money (and time) by outsourcing basic data collection to commercial ships and recreational boats.
Notably, a group of Japanese researchers used these ships, known as Ships of Opportunity, to scour the Pacific Ocean for traces of radioactivity after the March 2011 accidents at Fukushima Dai-Ichi.
Avast! What exactly are these aptly named vessels of high-seas research lore?
"Ships of opportunity go back to basically as long as ships have been at sea," said Carrie Wolfe, coordinator for NOAA's Pacific Southwest Ships of Opportunity Program. For instance, 17th and 18th century European explorers collected information about the weather at sea and astronomical phenomena around the globe, , and they carried that valuable, difficult-to-obtain data back to scientists.
Today's Ships of Opportunity are also working ships — freighters, fishing boats, recreational and educational cruise ships, even U.S. Coast Guard vessels — that allow scientists to ride along and collect ocean data during regularly scheduled voyages.
Wolfe connects interested researchers with ship captains who volunteer their vessels for the sake of scientific advancement, coordinating four or five ships at any given time.
When ocean ecologist Laurie Juranek was working on her thesis, she hitched a ride on a commercial cargo ship to measure differences in surface water chemistry between Los Angeles, Australia, and New Zealand.
On a traditional research vessel, space is limited and the cost can be prohibitive, she said. "For a large ship at sea for a month or more, it might cost $50,000 a day when you add up all the support and fuel costs, the food and everything."
Ships of Opportunity, on the other hand, are basically free. Typically, they charge only for food when a researcher, known as a ship rider, comes onboard to collect her own data.
Juranek, now an assistant professor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University, spent time as a ship rider on four voyages during 2004 and 2005 that contributed to her thesis research.
"It's very different from going to sea on a research ship," she said. "It's a cultural experience."
Juranek sailed with a Ukrainian crew and compared the voyage to spending a few weeks in the Ukraine, eating borscht everyday.
There's no doubt that the benefits strongly favor scientists — low cost, wide availability, all-you-can-eat Ukrainian soup — but the ships get something out of this deal, too.
They get bragging rights.
By volunteering space and time, the crews of these ships get outreach street cred with their shipping companies, but mostly they continue a long history of supporting science by sharing their observations.
"It's very rare for a ship to refuse us," said Wolfe. "They are usually very interested in doing this, probably because of the history of mariners taking weather reports and understanding the importance of understanding the ocean."
The relationship is largely cooperative, she said. But sometimes egos clash, and at least one scientist found himself stranded with his equipment on distant shores. "You don't tell anybody what to do on a commercial ship. Ever."
As Wolfe recalls, the offending scientist distracted the crew with measurement instructions when they should have been watching the water.
"I guess the captain felt that the scientist was being too much of a distraction and interfering with the ships operations, and left him and his instruments at the next port," she said. "You don't tell anybody what to do on a commercial ship. Ever."
Keep that in mind, dollar savvy scientists. Lest ye walk the plank. [h/t @SarahWebb and @MGhydro for science funding links.]