A Few Questions about FHL

Dr. Ken Sebens, Former Director, FHL

Some of the questions I have been asked recently about the Friday Harbor Labs are: How did you survive the recent years of budget cuts? Why is FHL still so affordable? How were you able to improve the physical plant during the economic downturn? Why do students keep coming to FHL from everywhere else, when other marine labs are having trouble attracting them? Why does the University of Washington spend money to maintain a marine laboratory that hosts so many non-UW users? Is FHL going to become completely self-supporting? The answers are: FHL suffered the cuts along with the rest of UW, because we want to encourage visitors, many grant proposals submitted, expanded course offerings and financial aid, because it is good for UW too, and ‘no’.

Ken by the statue of Jules Verne near the Vigo Marine Station in Spain.
Photo credit: Emily Carrington - UW FHL

Those are the short answers, so here is some more detail. First, the four years of economic downturn and cross-university budget cuts were tough on everyone at the University of Washington. At FHL we moved many expenses and all or parts of staff positions onto our self-sustaining budgets (housing, dining, lab fees, etc.). Even so, we lost the equivalent of 1.5 staff positions, then added those back at least partially. At one point, our budget cuts amounted to about a quarter of our state budget, but some of that has returned in other ways. Overhead return from research grants started to come to FHL in 2007, and that has also helped us quite a bit. Finally, much credit goes to those of us who wrote many grant proposals, and to our many donors, who responded to the crisis by increasing their support, helping us obtain new income and financial support. During the last eight years we have been able to add four new buildings, a new research flume, new microscopes, an entire ocean acidification laboratory and in-water mesocosms through the efforts of our very active scientists.

FHL is now much more self-supporting, with more than half its operating expenses coming from users, not including grant spending which is now much more than our state budget each year. However, the base budget from state funds is still over a million dollars a year and provides the basic staff, utilities, maintenance and other support needed on a daily basis. Each year, the university also comes up with additional funds to repair or replace buildings, roofs, bathrooms, etc. and to add fire safety elements, green energy modifications, and other substantial improvements. FHL needs this baseline university support for full operation and compared to other marine labs, we are fortunate to have this level of commitment from the College of the Environment.

The university administration supports FHL’s efforts to attract, support, and keep fees affordable for visiting investigators. We all know there is a fine line between increasing our income so we can keep offering excellent facilities and services, and making the costs so high that fewer visitors can afford to be here. In an extensive survey done in 2009, most respondents thought FHL was relatively inexpensive, but it was a bimodal distribution with one smaller group definitely feeling that FHL was expensive (maybe compared to previous years). The commitment to visiting faculty and student researchers has remained very strong, including an ongoing international outreach (e.g. new E. S. Morse Institute with Japanese labs) and continuation of summer courses taught by faculty from other countries. As far as UW is concerned, the national and international reputation of the University of Washington is fostered by activities of this type. For UW faculty and students at FHL, having colleagues and collaborators from other universities is a huge plus. I expect this emphasis to continue in the next decade. The very unique and beautiful Helen R. Whiteley Center has also helped in this regard, by attracting all types of scholars, from all over the world, to FHL (Thank you Arthur!).

The summer and academic year courses have always been a big part of FHL’s mission, success, and reputation. Over the past eight years we have expanded these offerings, including more summer course offerings (from 6 to 10), an additional undergraduate summer course, and full quarter offerings in both spring and fall, with broader choices of courses for students. These efforts have brought many more students to FHL, from UW and from other universities, each year. FHL is also committed to hiring faculty, both permanent and visiting, who can teach courses of the highest caliber. In addition to the regular courses, we have also maintained the unique undergraduate Research Apprenticeship program, with a new endowment, and have added NSF REU and BEACON research programs to our long-standing Blinks summer program, providing many more opportunities for diverse undergraduates to take part in FHL research. Many thanks are due to our amazing Advancement Board for continuing to find ways to provide more financial aid to most of these students. The ‘Adopt a Student’ Program has been a notable success over the past seven years. Some of our graduate students are now supported by a NSF IGERT graduate training program in ocean change, which also involves several FHL faculty.

FHL has increased its interactions with the local community as well. The FHL Science Outreach Program continues its excellent work in the K-12 classrooms, the NSF OACIS GK-12 Program put graduate students in high school science classes for five years (2008-2013), working with science teachers several days per week. Our scientists have served on San Juan County’s Marine Resources Committee every year, and on many state and federal committees where their expertise was very much needed and appreciated. Research at FHL also helps the state and local communities address environmental problems and issues, such as the effects of marine preserves, shoreline modification, desalinization, sound pollution, marine diseases, aquaculture, ocean acidification, and many other specific areas of concern. Over the past eight years, I have seen a distinct increase in the number of local researchers using FHL as a base for such projects, including individuals from the Seattle campus, state and federal agencies, and other universities.

As to my future, I am looking forward to becoming a ‘user’ of all these great facilities and services FHL now offers. After being an administrator for the past ten years, I anticipate expanding my research efforts, and teaching some new courses, which I will be doing starting this fall. I had a great sabbatical in Italy this past winter quarter, which allowed me to start some new and exciting projects, though I wish it could have been longer, of course. I also look forward to finally moving into our house on Pear Point, but will miss the very unique view from the new Director’s House at FHL - I expect several more directors will enjoy it too during the second century of FHL’s existence. Thanks to our very helpful staff, dedicated faculty, hard-working students and postdocs, very active Advancement Board, and everyone else who has made my job as director so rewarding, even during some very tough times.