Forming the Ocean Club called POGO

by Jesse H Ausubel, Director, Program for the Human Environment, The Rockefeller University, and Chair, Richard Lounsbery Foundation

“During 1997-1999 I was conducting feasibility studies for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for the program that would become the Census of Marine Life (CoML), a global effort from 2000 to 2010 to assess and explain the diversity, distribution, and abundance of marine life. Sloan required the studies to address a trio of questions: Should the Census happen? Could it happen? And, would it happen?  Read more…

Most everyone believed it should happen, for the thrill of discoveries and for better conservation. The technical optimists working in acoustics, tagging, genomics and other fast-developing fields believed it could happen. However, many, citing the fragmentation of the global ocean science community, doubted it would happen. While international networks of oceanographers successfully conducted several programs during the 1980s and 1990s,[1] a program involving individual, organizational, and national participation on the scale of the CoML had never taken place in marine biology.

In retrospect, we see that the late 1990s politically and historically favored launching such a program. Conflict among great powers was minimal. The USA, confident in the midst of the dot-com boom, was getting on quite well with both Russia and China, and key European nations, as well as Japan, Australia, and other nations rich in ocean science were generally prosperous and friendly.

Problematically, the international intergovernmental organizations coordinating ocean science were compartmentalized and often weak. They included the

  • Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC, Paris), which aimed to coordinate many aspects of the emergent global ocean and coastal observing system;
  • Fisheries and Aquaculture Department of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO, Rome), addressing sustainable fisheries and nurturing the taxonomic finfish database, FishBase;
  • World Meteorological Organization (WMO, Geneva), caring for ocean weather and climate variables;
  • UN Environment Program (UNEP, Nairobi), operating a Regional Seas Program;
  • International Seabed Authority (ISA, Jamaica), which covers the ocean floor and subsoil in areas beyond national jurisdiction;
  • International Whaling Commission (IWC, Cambridge UK);
  • Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea (New York), coordinating ocean matters for the UN General Assembly and other high-level UN efforts;
  • International Maritime Organization (IMO, London), regulating marine traffic and shipping;
  • International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES, Copenhagen), coordinating study groups and advising on Atlantic marine ecology, and its Pacific counterpart, PICES;

…and more, including NATO, which operated influential summer schools and fellowship programs. The efficient and effective nongovernmental Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research (SCOR) networked individual scientists in temporary working groups to stimulate and standardize work in many fields, such as harmful algal blooms.

None of these organizations regularly convened the leaders of the major ocean science institutions around the world, such as Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO, California, USA), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI, Massachusetts, USA), Institut français de recherche pour l’exploitation de la mer (IFREMER, France), National Oceanography Centre (NOC, Southampton, UK), Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC), Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation-Marine (CSIRO-Marine, Australia), Bedford Institute of Oceanography (BIO, Canada), and the Shirshov Institute of Oceanology, the largest institute for ocean and earth science research in Russia. While a national weather service and space agency might operate most of the system for observing the atmosphere, these institutions operate much of the system for observing the oceans.

During the early 1980s, I worked for William A. Nierenberg, director of Scripps from 1965 to 1986. From Bill and another mentor, Robert M. White, founding administrator of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who had served as US Representative to the WMO , IOC, and IWC, I had learned the geography of international marine research. During the late 1970s I had assisted Bob in creating the World Climate Program, and during the early 1980s I assisted meteorologist Thomas F. Malone, foreign secretary of the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS), in creating the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program. In 1990 I began spending summers working at WHOI, and became close to former WHOI director John H. Steele. John’s observations of the unusual operational style of ocean sciences led us to jointly author a 1993 paper, Flat Oceans for Earth Sciences, which explored both the vertical and horizontal structures of ocean sciences.

Bill introduced me to Charlie Kennel while Charlie was still a professor of space physics at UCLA. When Charlie assumed leadership of Scripps in 1998, Bill told me that Charlie’s experience thinking big in space science and exploration would be a great asset but that Charlie would need to get to know a lot of new people, as had Bill when Bill left particle physics to become director of Scripps. Charlie did not come from within the ocean science community. It did not surprise me when Charlie and Bob Gagosian, director of WHOI, contacted me at Sloan about forming a new club of directors of major blue water ocean science institutions. At this time, the numerous smaller, predominantly coastal marine laboratories (more than 60 in Europe and more than 100 in the USA) were also struggling to form national and regional associations and a world association, now the World Association of Marine Stations.

Charlie was shocked that no annual event reliably assembled his marine counterparts to discuss shared problems and develop strategies. Bob, having grown up in ocean science, knew many of his counterparts but confirmed that no convenient occasion existed when they regularly met for mutual benefit. Moreover, to learn the global picture by traveling each year to, say, a dozen major institutions would cost time and money and not address community and multilateral needs.

Meanwhile, I faced a similar problem with the Census. To succeed, a Census of Marine Life would require participation of scientists from almost all the major oceanographic institutions, those already mentioned and also the Institute of Oceanology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (IOCAS, Qingdao), National Institute of Oceanography (India), Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ), Institute of Marine Research (Norway), National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA, New Zealand), and others. While the directors of these institutions would not carry out the work of the CoML, clearly their familiarity with and support for the CoML would greatly lift the chance it would actually happen. Thus, I advocated for Charlie and Bob to create the club of directors both as an inherently good idea and to help Sloan make the CoML succeed. Once each year I and others from the CoML could bring the global leadership of major oceanographic institutions current on the CoML, and obtain their advice and help on advancing particular ocean observing technologies.

While Charlie and Bob wanted my experience with international organizations and programs, even more they wanted money. In 1994 I had begun a part-time role with the New York-based Sloan Foundation helping manage its basic science programs. Sloan had a lot of money but fewer than 30 employees, and I had to persuade only the president, a profound mathematician named Ralph E. Gomory, about the support of small proposals. Ralph, who had served as chief scientist of the IBM corporation, understood global science, and from his early years in the US Navy and US Office of Naval Research (ONR) had an excellent grasp of the problems of ocean science. In fact, Ralph’s predecessor at IBM, Emanuel R. Piore, had served as the first civilian head of ONR. Ralph rarely needed more than ten minutes to come to a full understanding of an issue facing the CoML.

After a September 1998 visit by Charlie to New York (see 9/23/98 email below), I invited a proposal for $30,000 to explore the need for a new organization.   John Shepherd (director of NOC), Charlie, and Bob submitted a proposal on 9 November 1998. The proposal, which used the name Partnership for Observation of the Global Oceans, POGO, thanks to Charlie’s aide, Lisa Shaffer, came from NOC and was approved a few days later. Growing up in New York City, my closest friend in high school was Steven Kelly, the son of Walt Kelly, who created Pogo, the American cartoon famous for “We have met the enemy and he is us.” The name further disposed me to like the idea.

The initial March 1999 Paris meeting (POGO-Zero), highlighted by excellent participation from Australia (Neville Smith), France, and Germany, and the looming challenge to grow the fleet of Argo floats to measure changes in ocean temperature convinced me of POGO’s timeliness and that the kind, enthusiastic, and respectful leadership of Charlie, Bob, Howard Roe (who succeeded John Shepherd at Southampton), and others could make it work.  I did share some concerns about ways to sustain top participation (see 3/14/99 email below).

Notwithstanding some concerns about the tone of the proposal and benefits to the CoML (see cover memo and email below from 6/8/99), on 14 June 1999 Sloan approved a grant to Scripps of $29,250 for the December 1999 “POGO I” meeting in La Jolla.  The proposal explained that the leaders would seek a total of $650,000 in support over the next 4 years and make POGO self-sustaining.

Charlie and Bob still preferred to use other people’s money as much as possible, of course. Solid-state physicist and former NAS president Frederick Seitz had recently appointed me to the board of directors of the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, a small philanthropic foundation that provides seed money for scientific programs and organizations. (Lounsbery would attain a place in donor history in 2004 by becoming the first philanthropic supporter of Wikipedia.) As president of Lounsbery, Fred, who had served in the early 1960s as the initial assistant secretary general for science of NATO, also had a clear understanding of the global seascape of ocean science and enthusiastically welcomed a proposal for $150,000, approved in October 1999, which enabled POGO to begin life without taxing its members.

Subsequently, both Sloan and Lounsbery would provide additional support, for example, to help POGO lift attention to in situ ocean observations in the young satellite-dominated Group on Earth Observations (GEO), and to spur biological observations, most recently in 2017 in regard to use of eDNA. In total Sloan supported POGO with seven grants totaling $279,250 and Lounsbery with three grants totaling $250,000.

Every institution I have mentioned, as well as other members of the POGO club, including the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ, Belgium), Alfred Wegener Institute (Bremerhaven, Germany), and Plymouth Marine Lab (UK) made important contributions to the Census of Marine Life, gratifying Sloan. During the Census decade, about 2,700 scientists from 80 nations undertook more than 540 expeditions. Now nearing age 21, the growth and longevity of POGO have exceeded Lounsbery’s expectations. Sensitive management by Shubha Satyendranath, Sophie Seeyave, and their associates in the secretariat and rotating chairs have overcome many problems.

Personally, POGO meetings enabled me to learn an enormous amount about ocean observing, especially in the deep sea and in the Southern Ocean, and to preview the inspiring attainment of a global fleet of almost 4,000 Argo floats. Through POGO I came to know marvelous people such as José Achache (GEO), Jean-Louis Fellous (IFREMER), Jan de Leeuw (NIOZ), Robert Nigmatulin (Shirshov), and Kiyoshi Suyehiro (JAMSTEC). I attended the first ten meetings, through POGO 9, and since then six either in person or remotely. Thanks to Tony Knap at POGO 9 in Bermuda I was thrilled to share with Charlie and Howard recognition by celebrity actor Michael Douglas as a POGO Founder.

POGO founders foresaw most of its agenda (see excerpts from 1998 proposal below).  Along with growth of worries about climate and biodiversity, unpredicted events further motivated POGO, notably the earthquakes off Aceh (December 2004), south-central Chile (February 2010), and east Japan (March 2011), and associated tsunamis, including the leaks of radiation from Fukushima into the Pacific off Japan’s east coast. The increase of sound in the oceans from human activities has created a new challenge for global observation, as has the increase in marine debris throughout the water column from the surface to the seafloor. Alas, in 2020, the world situation is not friendly or prosperous as in the fecund days of the 1990s. In a world in which formal intergovernmental relations and organizations operate with great difficulty, the informal club called POGO, now with well-established traditions of mutual respect, sincerity, and candor, becomes ever more valuable for better observing the oceans.

Reference Materials

Email 23 Sept 1998

From: Jesse Ausubel <>


Subject: charlie

Dear Bill [Nierenberg],

A note to say I spent 2 lively hours with Charlie Kennel, and was also able to arrange some time alone for him with Ralph Gomory.

I said to him at the end of the afternoon, “We will have fun working together.”

Next time we speak (not urgent), I would like to gain your perspectives on a couple of his concerns — about integrated observing systems, and about a coalition of major oceanographic institutions from around the world.

Cheers –


Email 14 March 1999

Dear Lisa [Shaffer],

Thanks to you and Wendy [Hunter] for a superbly professional job in organizing and following up promptly on the POGO meeting.  The minutes of the meeting are unusually well-written and useful.

I note the appropriate plan to apply the SOC Sloan funds for the follow-up activity of educational/media representatives.

I offer one comment overall: POGO’s success will depend in large part on the sustained participation of the “principals”, that is, the CEOs of the organizations.  Although much work may be delegated, for influence POGO itself must become a kind of “Club” for the CEOs, even if only to meet as such once per year.  In fact, “executive sessions” of only a couple of hours of the CEOs could prove one of the main strengths and attractors of POGO.  In considering the charter, future agendas, requirements for membership, and so forth, do think carefully what will sustain the top-level attendance and support.

Yours truly,


Excerpt from Ausubel Cover memo for proposal review, 8 June 1999 Alfred P. Sloan Foundation


Support for an international meeting of oceanographic institutions to cooperate on collection of observations pertinent to the Census of Marine Life

In 1998 we provided $30,000 for Southampton Oceanography Centre (UK), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Scripps to convene their counterparts from Japan, Australia, France, and Germany to explore the establishment of a new “Partnership for Observation of the Global Oceans” (POGO).  The exploratory meeting was well-organized and well-attended.  A full hour of the meeting was devoted to discussing the Census, and it gave me an excellent chance to meet influential leaders in marine science from outside the USA. The institutions represented decided that they did indeed want to invite a larger circle of organizations to establish POGO.  The institutions, via Scripps, have now come back to ask for about another 30k, about 1/3 of the estimated total cost of the meeting they propose to convene in December at which POGO would formally come into existence.

We were concerned that the ‘hegemonic’ institutions might behave in such a way as to damage chances for institutional cooperation.  In fact, they appear to be proceeding sensitively and sensibly.  I think it is beneficial for the Marine Census for Sloan to be associated with this effort.

Email 8 June 1999

Charlie, Bob, Lisa,

Sloan today approved the grant for $29,250 for the December POGO meeting.  Letter follows.

I do want to note that my colleagues, perusing the POGO materials (not only those in the letter proposal), remarked on the bureaucratic tone and style of the documents.   While recognizing that setting up organizations is a bureaucratic endeavor, they felt that thought should go into the style & profile of the organization.  Maybe drafting a scientist-friendly brochure or fact sheet or welcome-webpage would help.  The concern was that the present materials look much like the start of a complex, dull, Administrative Enterprise, rather than a cheery, helpful Club of Peers that short-circuits tedious procedures.

I also spoke with Fred Seitz about the approach to Lounsbery.  He is open to 50k/yr for 3 years.  However, the July docket is already full, so the Board will not consider it until the 25 October Board meeting.  It would be good for Charlie or Bob to see Fred before 25 October.



Excerpt from the 1998 NOC proposal to Sloan


Statement of Purpose

The purpose of the proposed Organizing Committee for a Partnership for Observation of the Global Oceans is to identify and explore areas of common interest among major marine research institutions and lay the groundwork for a broader ongoing partnership process.  The areas of common interest may include coordinated participation in the definition and implementation of an integrated strategy for global ocean observations, the proposed Census of Marine Life, public outreach, education, observing technology, data management, and data policy.  Each organizing committee institution is invited to participate in formulating the list of priority areas for attention.

The meeting would review the status of current and planned activities and then focus on how the participating institutions, and related organizations in their countries or regions, can work together more effectively to maximize their influence and the return on their various investments.  Invited experts will give overview presentations on major ocean-related initiatives and programs.  Initial discussions will be aimed at establishing a common awareness of activities, interests, plans, and issues in each of these areas.  From the discussion, a list of priority issues and a concept for how they should be addressed will be developed in preparation for the larger Partnership kickoff.  The Organizing Committee meeting will stimulate and organize the preparation of background papers on each topic that would be circulated in advance of the first Partnership meeting.  A lead agency/person would be identified to guide the process during and after the Organizing Committee meeting.

The underlying basis for beginning a process of closer coordination is the recognition that the same physical and biological data collected for one research project can be of great value to other seemingly unrelated programs.  Similarly, technological developments for marine observation may have application in many research programs, and economies of scale may be possible for large-scale purchases and deployments.  While there is significant scientific exchange within specific disciplines on an international basis, cross-disciplinary discourse and cross-cutting institutional issues are not as well coordinated or supported at present.  This meeting could lay the groundwork for much more comprehensive coordination with important payoffs for research and operational ocean programs.  It could help bring needed visibility and support to the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) effort which has made only limited progress to date.

Among the topics the meeting could address are:

  • Development of observing strategies:  what observations to make, methodologies, sampling, scheduling;
  • Technology development:  how to ensure access to fundamental technologies essential for ocean observations so that the cost of deployments for global programs can be shared across regions;
  • How to reduce the life-cycle costs of systems used for ocean observations through economies of scale from combined procurement and coordinated deployment;
  • How to use the combined interest of participating agencies to influence external technological developments, such as remote data communication, for the benefit of ocean research;
  • Opportunities for synergistic use of common infrastructure (e.g., cruises, buoys, moored arrays);
  • Common data management practices – development of a common framework such as a “dynamic geographic information system”;
  • Exchange of information on what data are being collected and where they are archived, plans for the future;
  • Intellectual property rights and other data policy issues;
  • Public outreach and education – strategies for enhanced support and resources;
  • Links to governmental and intergovernmental agencies and programs;
  • Pilot projects or studies could be considered and proposed as test cases to see if closer and more extensive coordination is feasible.  The proposed Census of Marine Life, for example, could be considered as an initial “module” of a broader research effort, and could be used as a test case for some of the follow-on efforts.

The Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the Southampton Oceanography Centre are co-sponsoring this meeting, which they hope will be the start of a long-term process.  SIO and WHOI are consulting with other marine organizations in the United States, and, together with SOC, with the proposed non-U.S.  participants to ensure that there is a consensus on the value of such an initiative, and to secure support from the principals.  One expected outcome is the creation of an ongoing informal “secretariat” to maintain momentum in specific projects agreed during the meeting, and to organize the initial Partnership for Observation of the Global Oceans meeting.

[1] Notably the Joint Global Ocean Flux Study (JGOFS), addressing carbon uptake by the oceans from the atmosphere; World Ocean Circulation Experiment (WOCE) improving measurement and estimates of global ocean circulation and heat transport; and Global Ocean Ecosystem Dynamics (GLOBEC) program addressing ecosystem effects of climate change.

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