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Scripps Institution Of Oceanography Preparing For Major Expansion

Aired 6/1/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

One of the world's most renowned marine research institutions is preparing for a major expansion. We speak to the director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography about how a nearly $250 million expansion will benefit the organization's long-term research goals.

The Robert Paine Scripps Forum for Science, Society, and the Environment at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
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Above: The Robert Paine Scripps Forum for Science, Society, and the Environment at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

One of the world's most renowned marine research institutions is preparing for a major expansion. We speak to the director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography about how a nearly $250 million expansion will benefit the organization's long-term research goals.

Guest

Dr. Tony Haymet, director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and vice chancellor of Marine Sciences at UC San Diego

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: There's a construction boom going on at the Scripps institute of oceanography, as a result of a multimillion dollar influx of money. In the next segment losing faculty to other campuses because of budget cuts, Scripps institution of oceanography will be able to offer its staff state of the art facilities to pursue their research into our changing oceans. It's an area of study that's crucial to our planet's health. On the line, we have Dr. Tony Haymet, who is director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and vice chancellor of marine sciences at UCSD. Thanks so much for joining us, Dr. Haymet.

HAYMET: You're welcome, Alison. Nice to talk to you.

CAVANAUGH: So tell us, how will Scripps institute benefit from -- I gather it's two hundred and 50 million dollars it's received.

HAYMET: Well, I wish we'd received that, but it's spread around a number of co-located facilities here in La Jolla. It's really a refreshing of the space and facilities that we have. We're not planning to get bigger in any profound way. But we have had the opportunity to relocate the Noah southwest fisheries building, that 50 year-old building on the bluff that was condemned and is falling into the ocean. So the regents of the university of California allowed us to use part of the campus for a new Noah building, so that's our colleagues from the federal agency. And we were lucky enough to win a competition, actually a nationwide competition for a new building on the Scripps campus. Which is really the first new building here for several decades.

ST. JOHN: And in addition to the building you've just received some money from the national marine fisheries service for a vessel as well. Tell us about that.

HAYMET: Well, there's two vessels involved. Noah has been replacing its fleet of vessels, and our colleagues at the southwest fishery center were successful in attracting one of the new Noah vessels here to San Diego to replace the David star Jordan, which was a great war course vessel that's been studying the fisheries of California and sea birds of California for quite I few decades. And also we were lucky enough to win a competition last year for one of the two Navy vessels. It has the nickname Argo 28, but it'll be named after some distinguished person later on. And so that's a nationwide competition that we were lucky enough to prevail in.

ST. JOHN: So now, Scripps institution of oceanography was at the forefront of research into climate change, wasn't it? Is that gonna be one of the focuses of your future research?

HAYMET: It's certainly one of eight or 10 important areas of focus. We're very proud of the fact that Charles David Keeling started the first measurements of CO2 here 55 years ago. Obviously we're in a very strong period of political turmoil, but we also believe that data is the to way to resolve all these issues. That if we keep just designing experiments that test all of the hypotheses, and publishing the data, making all the data available on the web so people can see, we think that's the way to resolve all of these arguments about the natural world. But we're gonna continue to study earthquakes and the fisheries of California, snow pack in the Sierra, the biological organisms up and down the costs and sea oceans of the planet.

ST. JOHN: Do you think you might be able to attract some more faculty? Some more staff, or are you gonna be working with your existing staff to use these new facilities.

HAYMET: Well, a lot of these facilities actually came about because we did attract a whole new cohort of new people to come to Scripps. Everybody lives forever down here on the beach. I'm looking forward to that myself. You know, my colleague Walter Munk is 94 years old.

ST. JOHN: Yes.

DEFENDANT: And e-mails me all the time with what he's up to and he still has a federal research grant. But we can't rely on Walter to make it to a hundred and 94. So in my time here in the last four or five years, we've made a concerted effort to attract from the nation and San Diego County and also around the world some new bright minds to well lead us into the next century of our research. And of course having been successful in that, if you get first class people, then you'd better provide them with first class facilities. So it's a happy coincidence that we've been able to attract this outside money, federal money to come and refresh a lot of the facilities here.

ST. JOHN: Okay. Talk a bit about where the money came from. Because obviously we don't hear a lot about federal money. It's getting hard to come by. Where did all this money come from.

HAYMET: Well, you just work hard and hope that things turn out. Really, the planning of this goes back five years when we had a faculty group come together, and with the title the Science Direction Advisory Panel, a group of distinguished professors and researchers here to try and think, what should we do more of if we ever got the opportunity? I must say, at the time in 2006, even then it looks a bit grim. But we thought at least there we should have some clarity. And also they were invited to say, what should we shut down? What have we been doing that we've done well, but maybe the community drive for doing it no longer exist.

ST. JOHN: Interesting. What sort of things did you decide to shut down?

HAYMET: Our international reputation in really studying the oceans on other planets. It sounds a little esoteric, but there are oceans on the moons of some of the bigger planets. Our colleagues at other universities had stolen some of our faculty, and we just hadn't been able to retain that group, and we said we're gonna continue to reinvest in things that we're clearly number one at.

ST. JOHN: Well, and that's sort of in line with what's happening at NASA right now, I guess.

HAYMET: Well, I think everybody -- whether you're a baseball team or a university, I think that's no good being another, up, university at number one hundred. If there's something that you lead the world in or lead the nation in, then that's what you ought to do. So having attracted those people, and we got some clarity about what we'd like to do next, and that was something we called the Marine ecosystem, sensing observation and modeling lab. And that is basically a set of robotic technologies where we can monitor what's happening in the oceans, beam the data back to the lab, and commuter servers, share it with our colleagues, and more or less in real time analyze that data to figure out what's happening in our ecosystems.

ST. JOHN: So you have robotic machines at the bottom of the ocean way out there, right? And you also are gonna be building a huge concrete tank right there on your campus, I understand.

HAYMET: Noah's gonna be building the tank, has already built the tank on the campus. That's to test. And yes, we do have machines all over the ocean. There are some on the bottom of the ocean monitoring seismic waves, they also would detect if any other nation launched a nuclear explosion, a nuclear test they're not supposed to have. And we're part of an international consortium that was 3,200 robots that measure the ocean temperature and salinity, beam the data back right here to La Jolla, and it's stored on computer servers.

ST. JOHN: Three hundred under on the ocean. Ah, ha.

DEFENDANT: And that's 26 countries that got together to do that. It's called the Argo system. It's a great example of international class action.

ST. JOHN: Would you say that the ocean remains one of the most undiscovered unscientifically researched areas of the planet, and that this research you are doing is more crucial now than ever?

HAYMET: I think from an economic perspective, that's certainly true. We have wonderful fisheries here in California but they're increasingly under pressure. We have a wonderful tourist industry here in Southern California, but it relies on the sand and making sure we have clean water and so on. So just from a pure business imperative, I think wee in an era where we need to know more about what's happening in our coasts and oceans. I think also scientifically, you know, we send out these probes to lifeless rocks on the other side of the solar system. About we know here that half the ocean hasn't been explored. So I'm one of those who thinks we should your robots to go to the great depths of the ocean rather than to the exclusion of exploring rocky outcrops.

CAVANAUGH: Yes. What are some of the biggest challenges that you face in trying to balance the need to perceive the ocean, ecosystem, with the needs for the Navy and those who work in the fishing industry?

HAYMET: Well, we try to do all those things. Obviously we're very interested in what can coexist in variety parts of our ocean territory. Of course we have an exclusive economic zone, and we could use it for lots of different thing, we could have aqua culture, and we could have native fisheries we could have commercial fisheries, we could have tourist industry. Part of what we do is collect enough data so we can actually figure out which of she's industries can potentially coexist, so when our policy makers actually come to make these tough decisions, they have the data at their fingertips. I think there's also a new era of exploration coming about. Let's face it, over the next couple of years, there'll be a couple of piloted expeditions to the great depths of the ocean. We're gonna be right there next to these romantic explorations with our robots collecting the data. As usual, it's really not people that collect the science. But it's the people that inspire our community to have a vision beyond our selves. At the same time, we're gonna use the robotic technology to collect vast quantities of data.

CAVANAUGH: Can you give us some specifics about what that data might reveal? What are you hoping to uncover?

HAYMET: Well, we know that more than a few miles off the coast or a couple of hundred yards into the Oceanside, we're always finding new life forms. And these days we have -- as well as just our plain curiosity about what's living out there, there's wonderful things we can do with those molecules. Various strains of algae are now used in prototype pilot plans for alternative biofuels so that our nation can grow its own liquid fuel and not have to import it from countries that don't necessarily like us very much. We have a large group here we call frogs from the sea that study all kinds of molecules in the ocean that some day might be able to be used for a next generation of pharmaceuticals. So there's lots of things we can do when we discover life forms, and I think we're coming into an era where we can do a lot of practical things with those molecules.

CAVANAUGH: And is climate change a certain and something you'll be focusing a lot?

HAYMET: Well, we're very concerned with the CO2 that dissolves in the ocean and makes it very hard for organisms that make calcium carbonate shells to actually form those shells. So yes, over the median term we've mobilized to study -- we continue our study of CO2 in the atmosphere, and it's going up at an ever increasing rate, but about -- a third of that CO2 over the last four hundred and 50 years has dissolved in the ocean. And we're beginning to see the effects of that. So we would like to develop much more accurate techniques to measure that acidity in the ocean as a function of depth, and throughout the year, it changes from winter to summer. We know enough to be concerned, but we'd like to collect a lot more data about the effect of that CO2 in the ocean on the things that are living in the Oceanside.

ST. JOHN: And while I've got you on the line, I can't resist asking you, doctor Haymet, about whether people at Scripps are in agreement that there might be some cause for concern about all the fireworks that are being let off over certain areas that are preserved along our coastline.

HAYMET: Well, I have to confess, I'm a fireworks fan. But I'm always concerned when we take man made molecules and interfere with the environment. I'm sure that this is an issue that given enough time can be settled scientifically, just like climate change. You know, there are some issues I try and stay away from. The children's pool and seals is the one thing you won't get me to talk about. I'm both pro-child and pro-seal. I think that our community gets unhappy with these things are sort of sprung upon us. And whether it's a sudden change or -- I'm certainly one of those who have invited my friends and relatives to come and envoy the fourth of July fire works. So I think it's all somehow in our community now we have these sudden lawsuits that are dealing with well known issues. And I heard some of your previous speakers saying, well, you know, doing things last year, and so on. I think it's when the kind of legal system gets out of step with what the community would like. And there are injunctions being filed at the last second and so on. That just makes us all as citizens unhappy. Obviously we like -- if a study needs to be done, it takes a year or two, then by all means let's do the work.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. A diplomatic answer. Thank you. That's doctor Tony Haymet, thank you so much for being with us, doctor Haymet.

HAYMET: You're much welcome.

CAVANAUGH: He's director of the Scripps institute of oceanography.

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