Should we be more critical of James Cameron's deep sea dive?

Illustration for article titled Should we be more critical of James Camerons deep sea dive?

The folks over at Deep Sea News recently invited a marine biologist, writing under the pen name "Dour Marine Biologist," to provide some thought-provoking counter-observations to the media hype surrounding James Cameron's dive into Challenger Deep, the deepest point on Earth.


The guest blogger raises some important points about the scientific relevance of Cameron's dive, its funding, and its contribution not only to the scientific community, but society at large. For example: will the fact that Cameron's expedition was privately funded affect how any findings made on this and subsequent dives are revealed to the public (if and when they are revealed at all)? Has the publicity generated by Cameron's dive offered any benefit to real deep-sea explorers (i.e. people who actually dedicate their lives to studying the oceans)? And what will Cameron's excursions do to keep the enterprise of deep sea science thriving in years to come? As the guest blogger notes (putting his own spin on an oft-quoted sentiment from Harvard economist and US Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren):

You built this sub, and funded this expedition into something terrific. God bless -– keep all the glory. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.


You'll find the post in its entirety over on Deep Sea News — and be sure to check the comments section for some insightful feedback.
Top photo by Mark Thiessen via National Geographic

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I think there are some fair points here, but I feel this line:

Most scientists work their asses off trying to get a few years of funding.

... belies the main sticking point with Dour's argument here.

And it sucks. There's no question about it. I think the problem is that his argument about public funding being a better way to do this research holds less and less water (ahem) the more the government looks for ways to balance our seemingly endless budget issues.

This same thing is happening in the space program and elsewhere. Marketing and commercial interest drives most spending these days. Is it right, for instance, that Snooki can get a book deal when there are talented authors out there working in traditional but more literary modes? Not artistically, but if you have cash you have a voice, and you can use that voice to say whatever you want.

The traditional academic model (the scholar leading the research, instead of the research leading the community) is breaking down under the weight of a funding structure that is not sustainable in our current economic and political situation. Putting aside the ethics of the Corporate vs. Public argument, which is also causing upheaval in higher education, the issue at hand is funding. Nobody who is empathetic and intelligent WANTS to choose between tax dollars going to a deep sea exploration or funding detox beds for individuals with a sickness, but those are the choices that increasingly must be made. I'd rather we lived in a society that takes care of its own and finds new, but maybe uncomfortable, ways and avenues to fund research and exploration.

The issue here, it seems to me, is that there's a pathway and hierarchy for funding for scholarly research and Cameron sidestepped all of it and said, basically, "well I'll just build my own sub."