As much of our country finds itself captivated by the prospects of manned missions to Mars, our inner-space – the oceans – have been sadly given ‘second fiddle’ status.

The new 115th Congress in January should begin to put these two parts of our future in a more common sense sequence; our oceans first!


Space exploration is, quite obviously, very important, and stepping back from manned space exploration was a mistake; but compared to the importance of our oceans to our planet, there is no comparison.

Congress’s priorities, emphasis, and valuable federal funds should be committed to the wise management of our oceans and the technology that can help us clean, conserve, and derive benefits from our oceans.

Protecting our oceans may not be as sexy as the idea of the ‘USS Enterprise’ flashing across the cosmos, but the impact of the oceans on our society as an essential source of food, a critical controlling aspect of our climate, and an endless source for sustainable renewable energy is vastly more important.

Manned exploration, habitation and sustainable exploitation of the oceans however requires technology.

Incredible advances have been made in the past one hundred years in ocean technology.  But our understanding and ability to operate safely in and upon the oceans remains a major challenge – and a big opportunity.

So, where does innovation and development of ocean technology occur?  Most notably, it occurs in the government, the private sector, and academia.

The U.S. government is one of the largest drivers for technology development. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Research office and the Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR) are two crucial examples. 

Ultimately, the sources of funding for these government programs are driven by the congressional appropriations process. 

This is where Congress needs to step up and make a sizable and considerable investment in the future of our oceans and the steady innovation of marine technology.

Like Vice President Biden’s ‘cancer moonshot’ initiative, the new 115th Congress should early on propose a bold oceans initiative heavy on investment, management, sustainability, and technology.

Private companies - many of which are not yet household brands - are also at the cutting edge of ocean technology.  One truly inspirational example is Liquid Robotics.  This innovator created a revolutionary ocean robot, 100% powered by wave and solar energy, and in the process, has effectively changed the playbook for remote ocean exploration.

And there are hundreds of other innovative companies in the ocean technology space leading us into the future.

There are also tremendous centers of innovation in academia. 

For example, the University of Washington runs the successful Seaglider Fabrication Center where significant advancements in robotic technology have been born and successfully transitioned to commercial use. 

Venerable research institutes such as Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute continue their long tradition of innovation.

Lastly, it is interesting to consider the recent attempts by outside influencers to stimulate increased R&D and to spur new ocean technology products and processes.

The X Prize Foundation and the Schmidt Ocean Institute are two such influencers. 

The Ansari X Prize for space flight has had a remarkable and substantive impact on the evolution of commercial space travel.  The Foundation has now embarked upon its Ocean Health and Ocean Discovery prize series with similar aspirations.

The Schmidt Ocean Institute is a non-profit private foundation focused on advancing ocean exploration, discovery, and knowledge using technological advances, data-rich observation and analysis, and open sharing of information. 

While it is inspirational to look to the sky, we shouldn’t miss opportunities lying at our very shores. 

The promise of clean, renewable ocean energy, the mining of undersea minerals, and the growth of sustainable food sources via aquaculture, require vision and commitment, and represent a more immediate and tangible value to mankind. 

It requires that we continue to invest in technology development to ensure we can pursue these opportunities safely and with economic viability. 

And as we do so, we must aspire to explore and understand our oceans, to commit ourselves to a higher level of stewardship, and ensure that our efforts are supported by the necessary financial support from the sectors we have discussed here.

And we need our nation’s leaders, especially those in Congress, to put the protection and management of our oceans as an urgent and significant agenda item. 

They must take stock of the ocean technologies that currently exist in the deep recesses of the government and pledge to provide the needed federal funding to boost these technologies into commercially viable benefits for our oceans.

Richard V. Lawson is the former executive director of the Marine Technology Society and currently consults with other groups focused on the dovetail between technology and our oceans. He is also a certified dive instructor and founder of The Amazing Ocean.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.