The National Science Foundation wants to invest almost $300 million in updating the nation’s aging fleet of oceangoing research ships, and it has chosen Oregon State University to helm the effort.

OSU will receive about $3 million to coordinate the design and supervise the construction of up to three new 175-foot research vessels, with the grant growing to $290 million if all three are approved.

The regional class ships would be assigned to the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf Coast regions, with the first expected to go into service in 2019 or 2020. One of the vessels — most likely the first to launch — would be operated by OSU.

“It is a big deal,” said Mark Abbott, dean of the College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences. “It keeps us at the forefront of ocean research.”

The university currently operates one regional class research vessel, the Oceanus, as well as a couple of smaller ones. But like the rest of the 20 or so ships in the U.S. research fleet, the Oceanus is nearing the end of its useful life.

“The ships we have now are almost 40 years old,” Abbott said. “The technology has advanced.”

OSU faculty will take the lead in designing the next generation of floating research platforms, with an eye to making them more efficient, stable and functional. The ships will be broader in the beam to hold them steady in rough seas and will have quieter engines to enable more sensitive data collection on whales, seismic events and other underwater activity.

“They’ll be better for the environment, but more importantly they’ll be better for the science,” Abbott said.

Scientists from around the country will have access to the ships, which will be part of the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System. A committee allots time on each vessel to individual research projects.

About two dozen OSU faculty members will have a hand in designing the new ships, according to Rick Spinrad, the university’s vice president for research. In addition, scores of students in the sciences, business, engineering and other disciplines are expected to help with various aspects of the project, gaining valuable experience.

And with the arrival of a new OSU-operated research vessel, Spinrad said, the university also wants to expand opportunities for undergraduates to conduct research at sea.

“We’ve got about $100 million of marine activities at OSU, and we think we can do more in terms of making this part of the educational experience for students,” Spinrad said.

Contact reporter Bennett Hall at bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com or 541-758-9529.

Reporter Bennett Hall can be contacted at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com.

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