A life on the ocean waves will be "free" for researchers.
The Natural Environment Research Council is so concerned at the dramatic decline in demand for time on its ships that it is going to provide it "free" - by funding it centrally.
The NERC believes that scientists think that research proposals with associated ship time are too expensive. The research council will monitor the number of applications it receives over the next two years, and the future size of its fleet will depend on whether demand for high-quality projects increases.
Ocean-going ships RRS Discovery and RRS Charles Darwin are managed by the NERC research ship unit at Southampton Oceanography Centre. The oldest ship, RRS Challenger, has been sold, but it may be replaced by a medium-sized ship if demand rises. The British Antarctic Survey also provides two months of ship time each year on the ice-class vessel RRS James Clark Ross.
Applicants for ship time would still have to find funding for scientific manning, equipment and sea-going technical support.
The research council is looking for proposals that it deems high-quality science, compatible with its strategic interests.
For example, the Charles Darwin is currently surveying an area west of the Shetlands to assess the populations of marine plants and animals, including an unusual cold-water coral, before any parts of the area are licensed for oil and gas exploration.
A spokesperson said: "We are not out just to fill the ships up with any old thing that comes along. We are there to support good science in line with our key environmental issues.
"There is a perception in the UK marine research community that research grants with expensive ship time attached are less likely to succeed so it is not worth bothering to apply. The NERC is committed to dispelling this idea."
The funding to make the ship time "free" is coming partly from the sale of the Challenger and from the research grant pot.