Some of the most groundbreaking and interesting marine science research is happening right here in Massachusetts, at Cape Cod's Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). The institution has a new leader, Dr. Peter de Menocal, who came on as president and director this fall. De Menocal spoke with GBH All Things Considered Host Arun Rath. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
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Arun Rath: Lots of people know about WHOI but might not be fully familiar with everything that happens there. So tell us about its mission first.
Dr. Peter de Menocal: Woods Hole's mission is to understand the oceans for the benefit of humankind. What is distinctive about us is that we're an institution of over 1,000 scientists and engineers and technicians whose sole mission is to understand the oceans, to lead discovery, and to search and find solutions for our ocean health and climate change.
Rath: I think most people would agree it's been a difficult four years for science with the Trump administration. There have been cuts in funding. There's been, frankly, a denigration of the value of science frequently, and facts themselves seem like they've been given less value. Has there been any effect on morale for researchers who are working for the government right now?
de Menocal: Well, for sure. I think those who are working in the government are really feeling the pinch in particular. Fortunately, we are an independent institution, and so our scientists are free to work on problems. In fact, that's one of our distinctive capabilities — the independence of our scientists and the independence of the institution, to be sure.
Rath: Does that give you a kind of insulation from the political side of things?
de Menocal: Yes, it does. I mean, of course we're all bound by the political reality of what's happening in the nation as a whole. But the exciting thing in terms of being a scientist is that there's an ocean of discovery out there, and there's so much to learn. That's what's primarily motivating our scientists, this quest to understand the planet. I think any natural scientist feels this immense passion with their subject matter, if you will, and that's what's really driving us. But the world is on fire and we have a lot of work to do to understand how we can contribute to that.
Rath: Right. And with the world being what it is, we do on the other side of things have an administration that's coming in that at least in terms of what they're saying is putting the value of science very high up. Is there any excitement about what that might mean for researchers there?
de Menocal: There's tremendous excitement. I mean, more than anything, I think it's a realization that we're returning to a sort of rational perspective on the world. One thing that I think is important for your listeners and really everyone to understand is that for all the suffering and the pain that the COVID-19 crisis has taught us, we're now looking at something like four different vaccines that are coming on the market. It's important to just pause for a moment and realize what science has done for humanity. In less than 11 months, we've come up with a vaccine. This was the focused effort of some really smart people focused on a problem, and it basically shows we can do amazing things.
Rath: Truly, it's been amazing to be just watching this and reporting it as it happens. So tell me about what are you most excited about, both in terms of new research and what's ongoing at WHOI?
de Menocal: There's a lot that I've discovered in all of my two and a half months of being on the job, but what really strikes me is that this team of 1,000 scientists and engineers are just poised to pounce on on the research opportunities presented to us. Now in terms of trying to advance the science and advance innovation to understand how we can make a difference on the many challenges that are facing the ocean and indeed the planet right now. When we look at climate change, for example, a few listeners may be aware, but the entire signal of climate change is rooted in the oceans. The planet is three-quarters ocean, and so there's much that we can be doing to inform how the oceans are changing and how those changes directly impact people. I think that's where the real innovation can take place. That is the focus of our research, on places where we can inform the processes and the knowledge that can make us a better and more sustainable world.
Rath: We often hear that we know more about the surface of the moon than we know about about our own oceans. What are some of the big gaps in knowledge that remain to be filled?
de Menocal: One of the most important areas where we can contribute new knowledge is understanding, for example, coral reefs. Something that many people are familiar with is that the coral reefs are under threat. But there are components of the reefs that are what we call super reefs, and they're able to basically survive the extreme heating that's occurring. We're looking at trying to rescue the super reefs to protect them so that they can be used to repopulate the rest of the oceans. Another area we're focusing on is pollution and plastics, understanding what can be done to constrain the plastic supply to the ocean and to clean up the oceans, because a healthy ocean is a healthy planet, and that's really the most fundamental thing that we can be doing to contribute to that.
Rath: In terms of the climate change work, in terms of understanding the problem, what more it is there to be done?
de Menocal: One of the things that's really fascinating about the ocean is that there's 40 times more carbon in the ocean than there is in the atmosphere. So if the ocean just burps a little bit, if you will, the atmosphere's carbon content changes dramatically. So some of our scientists are looking at ways in which the ocean can be seen as a sink for carbon, or a way to take up the excess carbon from the atmosphere. One of our projects that's actually leading discovery is something called the "ocean twilight zone." This is the place between about 600 feet and maybe 3,000 feet in the ocean where the light from the sun is extinguished in the ocean. One of the most richest places in terms of the biomass in the ocean is the soil, if you will, that's feeding the productivity in the surface of the ocean where we get our food. What we're discovering is that the export of carbon from the surface through the "ocean twilight zone," down to the ocean bottom — this is a really important process for regulating the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Rath: To what extent is the work that WHOI engages in civilian science versus projects pertaining to the military?
de Menocal: Most of our work is on fundamental science. Most of our work is on pure science, and discovery, and helping to define solutions for humanity. We do some work with the Navy, and we help with national security. I think it's an important contribution of science for society in terms of helping us to understand changes in the ocean. For example, with climate change, 90-plus percent of the heat resulting from carbon dioxide emissions is actually absorbed by the ocean, and that's changing the very structure of the ocean. The oceans are becoming more and more stratified. So that's really important, for our military personnel to understand how the oceans are changing so they can protect themselves and protect us.
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