State credit crunch puts squeeze on local science.

Floundering Funding: Director Kenneth Coale says recent money woes have forced Moss Landing Marine Laboratories to halt research projects and cut staff.

C alifornia’s bad credit is holding science hostage. Until it sells more general obligation bonds – which are rated below every other state, as of early February – the state Department of Finance has no money to back up voter-approved research.

Although the Legislature finally approved a budget Feb. 19, projects affected by December’s money freeze are still on hold, including a variety of Central Coast marine research and coastal conservation projects (see “Deep Freeze,” Feb. 18).

Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, which receives about 45 percent of its funding from the state, has laid off about 15 students, researchers and technicians. Two studies funded by state bonds – one related to mercury flux in managed wetlands, the other on the effectiveness of marine protected areas – are in limbo.

To make matters worse, the lab has absorbed a $420,000 cut to its $3 million annual budget through California State University, and a hiring freeze is in effect, according to MLML Director Kenneth Coale.

“IT’S LIKE BEING NIBBLED TO DEATH BY DUCKS.”

“It’s like being nibbled to death by ducks,” he says. “Mother Nature doesn’t care about the stop-work order. She just keeps crankin’ along. For us to be able to understand her workings, we can’t stop either.”

At CSU-Monterey Bay, marine ecologist Rikk Kvitek lost bond funding for a $20 million sea floor mapping project. Much of that money, which supported 15 students and technicians at CSUMB’s Sea Floor Mapping Lab, came through 2006’s Proposition 84, a water quality bond administered through the California Coastal Conservancy.

“We’re an example of how devastating this can be to students and researchers,” Kvitek says. “We assumed that because [our project] is bond-funded, it’s not at risk. We were wrong.”

The research vessel collecting the data has been out of commission since the stop-work order. Kvitek has managed to cobble together bridge funding for data analysis through March, but he’s unsure what will happen next.

Even if the state restores the funding, researchers may have a hard time picking up where they left off. “These people have scattered,” Coale says. “It’s going to be difficult to re-assemble these teams in a way that can be effective.”

Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove is less dependent on state funding, but grants are harder to come by. “Opportunities to renew funding are getting fewer and farther between,” HMS Director Steve Palumbi says. “We’re in the same boat as most businesses – looking for clients.”

One ray of hope: The federal stimulus bill passed Feb. 17 includes $3 billion for the National Science Foundation, adding 50 percent to its existing 2008 budget of almost $6 billion. Fifteen percent of that annual pot has already been awarded to research in California.

The National Science Board met Feb. 23-24 to discuss how to spend the stimulus money. The exact allocations are still undecided, according to NSF spokeswoman Dana Topousis, but it’s likely that some of the money will flow to the Central Coast, a hub of marine research.

In Sacramento, meanwhile, state officials are working to determine when and how to restore the bond funding.

“I cannot tell you when we’ll get back into anything resembling a normal pattern,” Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer says. “Right now the principle issue is trying to get back into the credit market and get this infrastructure money flowing again.”

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