Cutting Beaufort sea lab will result in false savings

April 1, 2014 

It was a small item in President Obama’s budget, a note that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration planned to close a lab somewhere to save money. But when it turned out somewhere was Beaufort, North Carolina, some members of the state’s congressional delegation were justifiably upset, and it was a bipartisan anger. They say this is a budget cut for which they will not stand.

The fish and oceanic wildlife of North Carolina, and of the nation for that matter, better hope their opposition is successful in getting the Beaufort lab funded. Because the work scientists do there helps in many ways, from studying algal blooms to gathering data on the health of fish stocks and possible threats to them.

The truth is, as a News & Observer and McClatchy news report demonstrated, the case for saving this lab could not be stronger.

And those who know all about the lab believe the reasons for its proposed closing are not as strong as some NOAA officials say they are.

For example, the NOAA says the lab needs over $50 million in work. But those who are advocates for the lab say the work wouldn’t be that expensive, and note that just in recent years, the NOAA has put $14 million into the lab, and that including a new administrative building and a new bridge.

So here’s the case for the lab.

It has three university labs all around it, something that helps the Beaufort lab and the marine science programs from Duke University, UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State. There are but a handful of labs studying Atlantic fish populations and this is the only one between New Jersey and Miami.

That alone should be a good enough case to save a lab that’s been going for over 100 years, since 1899.

But even if budget-writers aren’t much for history, and it’s hard to believe all of them are not, this is a lab that does important work.

For example, it’s a good spot in which to study global climate change and its effects on sea levels. That is of value to the entire East Coast. Which means to the entire nation.

And then there are the conservationists. They say that the lab does important work in protecting fish stocks and investigating problems as they develop. “... the health of our states’ marine resources depend upon access to the best scientific data available,” said the state chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association.

Needless to say, or perhaps it’s not, the state’s commerical fishing industry very strongly supports keeping this asset open and thriving.

And OK, while this might seem a selfish argument for keeping the lab open, it’s more than that: The three universities, all major research universities by the way, have along with the federal government over 160,000 square feet of research and laboratory buildings. More than 500 people in the area are employed because of this research, and the projects and people and universities put about $58 million into the local economy. Beaufort has tourism, but the marine science labs, etc., are a tremendous, and up to now a rock-solid, asset.

Some things can be snipped from a federal budget, without a lot of consequences. But that’s not true of the Beaufort lab. This is important science, with a strong history of delivering on the investment to keep it going. That deserves to be supported, not sliced from the budget, and probably needs more investment, not no investment.

North Carolina’s congressional delegation, Republicans and Democrats, has demonstrated an appropriate level of alarm over a very foolish and economically and scientifically unwise proposal.

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