Jul 09 2009

National Science Foundation Funds University of Alaska Oceanographic Research

A research vessel headed up by the University of Alaska Fairbanks is one of the first institutions to receive stimulus funding.

A research vessel headed up by the University of Alaska Fairbanks is one of the first institutions to receive stimulus funding.

The National Science Foundation has given one of its first big stimulus awards to an oceanographic research vessel that will be managed by the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The NSF will spend $148 million to help build the Alaska Region Research Vessel (ARRV), a 242-foot ship that’s expected to be seaworthy by 2013 and will cost $199.5 million to complete. The ship’s sponsors say ARRV’s ice-breaking capability will let it navigate through almost three feet of solid ice, which will help scientists study the northern Arctic during the frozen winter months, something that hasn’t been possible in the past.

“There’s so much we don’t know because we’re only able to do research from May through August,” says Terry Whitledge, ARRV principal investigator and Director of the Institute of Marine Science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

ARRV will feature a Science Data Network that will analyze and store data on the ship’s many upcoming research missions. The goal is for scientists and students to leave the ship with a first-pass analysis and plenty of secondary data to continue research back at their respective universities.

Marc Willis, Oregon State University staff member and ARRV’s marine sciences technical director, says ARRV will carry a redundant fiber and Category 7 network. Both the fiber and Cat 7 cable will run from the ship’s central Computer Electronics Lab and out to about 15 subnodes throughout the vessel. The ship’s outlying areas will run only over Cat 7.

While actual IT purchases are at least two years away, Steven Hartz, ARRV’s marine technician, envisions that the central lab will have a series of virtualized servers that will be supported by a storage area network run over iSCSI. All the vessel’s instrumentation will be connected to high-end workstations with visualization capabilities.

Willis says it’s critical to ARRV’s research efforts that the ship’s technology infrastructure be open and flexible.

“We are building in the capability for scientists to bring their own sensors and instrumentation and be able to smoothly integrate them with the ship’s network,” Willis explains. “The goal is for the scientists to leave with an integrated data set.”

Whitledge says ARRV will study climate change and trends in local fisheries and will develop maps that could help the oil industry more accurately make territorial claims for petroleum exploration. The ship will also be a general oceanographic vessel for scientists and students who study the Arctic seas.

Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the federal government will pour $16 billion into research that will be divided between the NSF, National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy. Universities will then apply for grants, with the lion’s share of the money going to colleges and universities through the NSF and NIH. Most of the money for energy research will go to government labs.

While IT managers in the K–12 world know that they will see some stimulus money, college IT staffs have been less sure. For example, $650 million of stimulus funds were allocated to K–12 school districts for technology projects under the Title II-D program. No equivalent program exists for colleges and universities, but college IT directors at large research universities are confident their departments will benefit from the stimulus funds designated for research.

“The stimulus plan has stimulated our faculty to submit additional grant applications,” says Mort Rahimi, vice president and chief technology officer at Northwestern University.

“It also increases the percentage of grants approved by various agencies,” he explains. “Therefore, we expect some 20 percent increase in funding, pushing us over $500 million in government grants.”