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Oregon State University: front and center for marine science

Oregon State University, where Jane Lubchenco is professor of marine biology and zoology and nominee to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is often ranked in the top four marine-science research centers, along with Woods Hole (M.I.T.), Scripps (California), and University of Washington.

President-elect Barack Obama’s declared interest in climate change should assure added prominence and federal funding for Pacific Northwest marine researchers, welcome news as state higher education budgets are trimmed. Federal agencies are already the biggest share of research funding for OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences. COAS attracted $33.7 million in grants this year, about 85 percent from federal agencies, primarily the National Science Foundation. The entire university research budget was about $220 million.

Lubchenco is the best known of the current crop of OSU researchers, but she is not alone in prominence. Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s earth-sciences division, is a former COAS associate dean. Kelly Falkner now directs and Antarctic Ocean and Climate Sciences program at the National Science Foundation and Adam Schultz directs NSF’s Marine Geology and Geophysics Division. Both hold OSU professorships.

Oregon State’s most visible marine science outpost is the Mark O. Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, created in 1965 when Hatfield was Oregon’s governor. Among the early researchers was John Byrne, an oceanographer who later headed NOAA from 1981 to 1984, before returning to OSU as its president (1984-1995). Byrne remains active on campus as an emeritus professor. As Hatfield grew in seniority on the Senate Appropriations Committee and Byrne held the high-profile NOAA directorship, the Center prospered.

Now climate change may provide the finances, along with alternative energy, another professed goal of an Obama Administration.

The Center’s Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center in September received a Department of Energy grant of $1.25 million, to be combined with state funds, the Oregon Wave Energy Trust, the University of Washington, and other sources to create a total of $13.5 million over five years to advance the generation of energy from waves, ocean currents, and tides. This support will primarily be used to build a floating “test berth” to test wave energy technology on the Oregon Coast near Newport, as well as fund extensive environmental impact studies, community outreach and other initiatives, according to OSU scientists.

Professor Lubchenco’s high-profile appointment calls attention to these programs and to one of the region’s least-known centers of excellence, but the change has been coming for decades. Oregon’s land grant university, Oregon State for a century specialized in agriculture, forestry, and engineering, but beginning in the 1960s began developing marine science, and developed a complex web of relationships with other universities, federal and state agencies and private researchers. Lubchenco is at the nexus of several of these relationships, and just ratcheted upward the region’s scientific profile.

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