Looking Back and Looking Ahead
Letter from NYSG's Director - April 2018

I am preparing to step down as Director of New York Sea Grant; to, in fact, retire and rest on whatever slight laurels I have collected over a 40-year career in the marine and environmental sciences.  Before I completely quit the stage, I want to say a few words about the recent past and the future of the Sea Grant program. 

In spring 2017, the Trump Administration targeted the National Sea Grant College Program, and its then-$73 Million annual federal appropriation, for elimination.  Was this personal animus by Mr. Trump and his budgeteers against Sea Grant?  Hardly.  It is no secret that the current Administration wants to re-shape the federal budget to provide more funds for defense and homeland security.  Because statutory caps exist on total federal spending, the only way to budget more for defense and homeland security is to budget less for non-defense programs.  Sea Grant got caught up in this clash.  So did a lot of other federal programs that make grants or spend money outside Washington D.C.

While there was nothing personal in the Administration’s proposal to end the Sea Grant program, it did pose an existential threat.  Thankfully (for Sea Grant), one aspect of the hallowed “separation of powers” that characterizes the distribution of responsibilities and authorities within our federal government is captured by the old adage, “the President proposes, but the Congress disposes.”  It is Congress that decides the budgetary fate of federally-funded programs.
Congress has always been a big fan of Sea Grant.  Why?  Because Sea Grant does work in every coastal Congressional district in the country, funding needed research on priority coastal problems and issues and then putting the results of this research out there for a wide variety of coastal stakeholders to use.  Over its 50-year history, Sea Grant has built an enviable reputation among coastal communities, coastal constituencies and others with an interest or stake in coastal resources as a small program that, using partnerships, produced big results time and again.  Sea Grant’s recent budget experience has been that, if you help people, they will help you.

So it was that, when the Administration’s plans to eliminate federal funding for Sea Grant were made public, coastal stakeholders from all walks of life and from all coastal states went to their Congresspersons and Senators, pressing them to turn aside the proposal to end Sea Grant funding but rather, in fact, to increase the amount of funding made available. 

Much is said these days of the partisan political atmosphere that engulfs Washington D.C. and that produces paralysis because politics is no longer, “…the art of compromise” or cooperation. There is truth in that, but it is not entirely true.  No Congressperson, regardless of party affiliation, will failed to be swayed and moved by strong, in-district stakeholder support for a federal program. 

In response to stakeholder concern and support in both the FY 2017 and FY 2018 budget negotiations, Members of Congress from both parties got solidly behind the restoration of Sea Grant’s funding.  As a New Yorker, I am particularly proud to report that a New York member, Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin of eastern Long Island, quickly assumed a leadership role in the fight for Sea Grant’s budgetary survival.  Pointedly, in this, Mr. Zeldin was joined by a strongly Democratic Congressman from Connecticut.  When the dust settled, Sea Grant’s FY 2017 funding was held level with that of FY 2016, while its FY 2018 appropriation was increased to $76.5 Million, the highest appropriation in the program’s history.

The lesson?  The world is not entirely topsy-turvy.  Good performance is still usually rewarded.  My gut feeling is that the 2017 and 2018 budget negotiations were something of a crucible of fire for Sea Grant.  Having safely passed through that crucible, Sea Grant has emerged much strengthened.  Its relations with both stakeholders and Congress are tighter and the speed and effectiveness with which support for Sea Grant can be activated has never been greater. From this hard-won position, a major challenge is to develop deeper, more consistent support for Sea Grant within the Administration.  This is an entirely achievable object.  If achieved, it would position Sea Grant to assume an even larger, more impactful role in obtaining a more sustainable future for the Nation’s coastal communities, businesses and residents.  

As I exit stage left, I feel good about Sea Grant and its future.  I’ll be cheering it on, albeit from the sidelines.

Bill Wise, Director
New York Sea Grant

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