Mood at Bigelow Lab grand opening upbeat despite looming threat of fiscal cliff

Posted Dec. 14, 2012, at 8:17 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 15, 2012, at 8:46 a.m.
Graham Shimmield, president and executive director of the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, left, and Robert Gagosian, president and CEO of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, discuss how federal budget problems could hinder the study of the world's oceans on Friday in Boothbay.
Christopher Cousins | BDN
Graham Shimmield, president and executive director of the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, left, and Robert Gagosian, president and CEO of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, discuss how federal budget problems could hinder the study of the world's oceans on Friday in Boothbay.

EAST BOOTHBAY, Maine — Stormy seas could be on the horizon for the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, figuratively in terms of its federal funding and literally for its researchers, who travel the world’s oceans in search of new understanding about some of the world’s smallest but most important organisms.

Despite the ominous threat of the so-called fiscal cliff and the end of stimulus funding from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, today things were looking all right. Dozens of employees and hundreds of guests gathered at the facility Friday to celebrate the completion of a gleaming, clinically clean and technologically advanced research and education facility that has been under construction for two years.

For more than three decades, Bigelow Lab has been housed in a collection of buildings it leased from the Maine Department of Marine Resources a few miles away in Boothbay Harbor. Much of its research has to do with microscopic plants and other organisms that live in the ocean, including oxygen-generating phytoplankton, whose survival is crucial to virtually all life on Earth. Earlier this year, the lab announced that a multi-year research project had revealed an alarming decline of the phytoplankton in the Gulf of Maine, though data from the past few months has shown that their numbers are rebounding.

The lab is involved in unlocking the mysteries of a host of other organisms, such as how and why certain forms of bacteria are able to convert rust into oxygen, and the DNA sequencing of microscopic organisms that have lived in isolation at the bottoms of the world’s oceans for millions of years. Bigelow also has recently started a live-in research and education program in partnership with Colby College.

With a mix of grants, donations and $4.5 million in bond funds approved by Maine voters in November 2008, the organization has completed its move to a new facility. Bigelow Executive Director Graham Shimmield said the updated labs and equipment represent greater capabilities in terms of research and could open the door to increasing the workforce from the approximately 70 currently working there to more than 200.

Bigelow’s new 60,000-square-foot laboratories and education center houses the Norton Center for Blue Biotechnology; the Center for Ocean Biogeochemistry and Climate Change; and the Center for Ocean Health. Bigelow also is responsible for keeping the national marine phytoplankton collection, which includes thousands of microscopic specimens.

But what those scientists do is heavily dependent on grants from federal agencies like the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA, all of which face deep cuts if Congress is unable to avoid the fiscal cliff by the end of this year.

Robert Gagosian, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Consortium for Ocean Leadership and former president and director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, was one of the guests at Friday’s festivities in Boothbay. He said oceanography in general faces serious challenges regardless of whether the nation plunges over the fiscal cliff, which would result in deep across-the-board cuts in federal programs.

“Whether we reach the fiscal cliff or not, it’s the environment of the fiscal cliff and the national debt that is the problem,” said Gagosian. “Even if it doesn’t happen, we’re still in that environment and we’re still close to it. I think you’re going to have to navigate through this minefield.”

It was a sobering message delivered against the backdrop of a grand opening celebration complete with a jazz band led by William “Barney” Balch, Bigelow’s senior research scientist. For that, Gagosian apologized.

“I don’t want to be a downer and I don’t want to be depressing, especially today,” he said. “I want to be realistic. Frankly, sticking your head in the sand isn’t going to help.”

On the upside for Bigelow, according to Gagosian, is its relatively small size, which makes it nimble enough to serve as a model of how research can survive economic doldrums. One solution he identified is for the oceanography community to work together and share expensive facilities and equipment rather than try to compete with each other.

“You can change in a way that other institutions can’t,” he said. “I don’t think any of us wants to see oceanography become a backwater science. What we do is too important and needed right now.”

Shimmield said the majority of the organization’s funding trickles down from the federal government in the form of research grants.

“Clearly, the situation in Washington is of concern,” said Shimmield. “On the other hand, we have a new state-of-the-art facility and world-class scientists here so we will compete for those federal funds to the best of our ability.”

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who was the keynote speaker during Friday afternoon’s ceremony, said she understands the importance of organizations like Bigelow in both local economies and the research sector.

“Whenever I support federal funding for Maine projects, I do so fully confident that the taxpayer investment will yield a significant return,” said Collins, according to her prepared remarks. “Bigelow Laboratory more than justifies that confidence.”

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