FALMOUTH — Its famed research vessels and scientists are arrayed across the globe, installing weather instruments off the Cape, tracking water currents in the Labrador Sea, monitoring monsoons in India, and measuring melting ice in Antarctica.
In these and other ways, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is playing a leading role in raising the alarm — and scientific understanding — of the perils of climate change.
But now the nonprofit institution, facing a severe budget crunch as federal research funding is slashed, has a very different sort of venture in the offing: helping oil and gas companies identify new sources of the very fossil fuels believed to be damaging the environment.
The potential that Woods Hole's world-renowned expertise in deep water exploration could become a new tool for oil firms — through its newly established Center for Marine Robotics — is troubling to some environmental groups and others who worry the institution's scientists could be co-opted by private interests if they are forced to rely too heavily on their support for research.
"It is a real problem," said Walter H. Munk, a professor of oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., which is part of the University of California, San Diego. His university has received money from corporate sponsors. "You have to be quite sure you are getting the money in circumstances that don't limit your [scientific] freedom," Munk said.
In the coming days, according to officials at Woods Hole, the institution is set to sign agreements with Saudi Aramco, the primary oil company owned by the Saudi government, to study the potential for "hydrocarbons" in the Red Sea. It is also preparing to ink a deal for a "simulation study" on behalf of the Italian oil company Eni, while it has half a dozen other proposals in the works with unnamed corporations, the officials said.
Yet earlier this month, Woods Hole coauthored the Obama administration's National Climate Assessment, which partly blamed hydrocarbons for causing climate change and damaging oceans.
"In addition to causing changes in climate, increasing levels of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities have a direct affect on the world's oceans," the report found, particularly an increase in levels of acidity, which it said are a threat to marine life.
Woods Hole has historically received most of its funding from federal research grants, which has helped ensure its independence. But cutbacks at a variety of agencies — and a near-halving of its Pentagon research dollars in the last three years — has prompted it to seek new sources of funding.
"It is the sort of thing that used to not be a strain," Laurence P. Madin, Woods Hole's executive vice president and director of research, said in a recent interview. "We have limited resources to fall back on."
Madin confirmed the upcoming oil company agreements and acknowledged that receiving energy company funds would bring a new player into Woods Hole's "environment of independent thinking and creativity."
In an ideal world, the institution would continue to rely mostly on the process for awarding federal grants, in which scientists propose their ideas to selection boards, Madin said.
"It is a bit better, I think, that the ideas come up from the individual scientists and engineers rather than somebody sitting up here saying 'OK we're going to look at this now,' " he said. Woods Hole's strength, he said, has been that "it is very different from what a contractor might be like. The weakness is that it does depend on there being sufficient [government] funding out there."
Woods Hole officials, in a series of interviews during the last two weeks, said they recognize the potential for a clash of interests by working for energy or other private ventures. But they said they are confident such new relationships will not erode the institution's scientific independence.
They said they can simultaneously continue to do objective climate change research while aggressively recruiting corporate sponsors in the energy and mining sectors.
"The independence of our research is an important value of what we do," said Susan K. Avery, the president and director of Woods Hole. "Our culture of intellectual independence in research allows individuals to choose the kind of work and the support for it that they prefer. Some here might be unwilling to accept support from oil companies, just as some might be unwilling to receive support from the Navy."
Avery, who also confirmed the pending agreements, said she expects all the research findings will be "uncensored" and "we will not be producing operational business products for the industry."
The effort to enlist the backing of oil, deep sea mining, and other companies with an interest in the oceans was prompted in large part by a steep drop in federal research spending — so steep that Madin said that Woods Hole is facing the prospect of having to reduce some of its 1,465-employee workforce, including scientists, technical staff, research assistants, administrators, marine crew, and university students.
All of the major federal agencies that it relies on for research grants — including the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, NASA, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration — are feeling the squeeze of shrinking spending in an effort to control the ballooning federal budget deficit.
For example, in the case of the National Science Foundation, "the core research budget for the ocean science division is down roughly 15 percent," said Robert B. Gagosian, who served as director of Woods Hole from 1998 to 2007 and is now president of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, a Washington-based nonprofit representing more than 100 public and private ocean research and academic institutions.
"The competition goes up so people are looking for new sources of money," he added.
Revenues for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution were about $220 million in 2012, according to its most recently available annual report. But its finance department notes research funding from the military, its second largest source of funding, has dropped by more than half between 2010 and 2013 — from nearly $36 million to less than $16 million.
"Money is going down and the breadth of available sponsors in shrinking. It is a perfect storm," said Craig E. Dorman, an oceanographer and retired Navy admiral who headed Woods Hole from 1989 to 1993.
Woods Hole also has fewer dollars available for its ships, submarines, and remotely piloted vehicles. The available funds dropped from $26 million in 2009 to $22 million in 2012, the most recent year available. Officials said the downward trend has continued.
Representative William Keating, a Bourne Democrat whose district includes Woods Hole, said in an interview he is alarmed by the drop in government funding for Woods Hole.
"They are a real [economic] engine in our area," he said. "Cutting back in research is one of the biggest mistakes we are making as a country."
Woods Hole, which was originally established in 1930 by a charitable trust, has had a history as a hybrid organization. While most of its funding has come from the government, it has also undertaken research funded by philanthropic foundations, private sponsors, and foreign entities.
Meanwhile, a number of its scientists have spun off some of the institution's technological advances, such as remotely operated undersea vehicles, into private companies, many of them based in Massachusetts.
But the Center for Marine Robotics is the first dedicated effort to enlist major corporate sponsors. In addition, it has enlisted academic partners, including MIT and the University of Rhode Island.
Attempts to reach Saudi Aramco and Eni regarding the Woods Hole discussions were unsuccessful. Woods Hole officials did not provide details of the size of the proposed research agreements.
"We are inviting companies to become members of a consortium," said Madin, the research director. "They would provide a certain amount of money every year, the bulk of which would be for research they are interested in."
Like MIT and other research universities that receive corporate funding, sponsors would also be eligible to bring any new technologies that are developed through the research they fund to market.
The new marine robotics center offers private sector clients a host of cutting-edge research possibilities with its state-of-the art undersea vehicles — including surveying the oceans for marine life, providing harbor and coastal surveillance, and expertise to assist in deep water mining and aquaculture, or fisheries.
But the center's pitch also includes access to deep-water environments such as beneath the ice caps where energy companies are seeking to explore new deposits of oil and natural gas, including in the Arctic, which is now more accessible because of the warming climate.
Despite Woods Hole's long track record of protecting the environment, the new effort has alarmed some environmental groups.
"I certainly can see, from a commercial point of view, where the kind of research that is done by people like Woods Hole would be valuable to oil companies because all the easy oil has been found for the most part," said Mark Floegel, a senior investigator at Greenpeace, an environmental group that specializes in ocean research. "But there is a lot of science that can be done that can help the oil companies and there is a lot of science that can be done that can hinder the oil companies. He who pays the fiddler calls the tune."
Floegel worried that companies supporting Woods Hole's research "are not going to want to see things that are going to make them look bad or could be used against them as evidence in public comments or public hearings to say that maybe it is not a good idea to be drilling."
Gagosian, the former Woods Hole director, said he supports the effort but agreed the approach presents some "pitfalls," such as who owns the intellectual property rights for the research. During his tenure, he said, concerns were raised about building too much a financial relationship with private companies and he warned Woods Hole against doing "too much, too fast. You can always say no."
Others urged Woods Hole to be fully open with the public about what it is doing.
"Any relationship with a company should be fully disclosed, as well as the nature of it be fully transparent," said Gretchen Goldman, lead analyst for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Cambridge-based Union of Concerned Scientists.
"It needs to be clear whether they are just funding research controlled by Woods Hole or are there strings attached?" she added. "Is the research going to be publicized?
Dorman, the former Woods Hole director who is now a consultant for the University of Alaska, agreed that officials should be mindful of the potential impact of the new center on Woods Hole's overall scientific approach. "It needs to be dealt with openly and ethically and if there are members of the community that do not want to participate, there should be that option," he said.