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Science Committee Examines US Antarctic Program

Aline D. McNaull
Number 147 - December 19, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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The House Science, Space and Technology Committee held a November 15 hearing to examine the work and goals of the US Antarctic program and to review recommendations from the US Antarctic Program Blue Ribbon Panel July 2012 report “More and Better Science in Antarctica Through Increased Logistical Effectiveness.”  This report highlights the US Antarctic activities which are affected by an aging infrastructure, lack of capital budget and extreme environmental conditions.  Prior to the release of the Blue Ribbon Report, in 2010 the National Science Foundation (NSF), in coordination with the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), reviewed science questions and improvements to logistical support that would affect the next two decades.  In 2011, the National Research Council released a report on “Future Science Opportunities in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean” laying out recommendations for the direction of scientific research in Antarctica for the next two decades.    

Committee Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) stated in his opening remarks that he recognized the importance of the US maintaining a US presence in Antarctica.  He welcomed the recommendations from the Blue Ribbon Panel and was pleased that the Panel provided specific implementing actions that could be categorized as either essential for safety and health, readily implementable, or investments having large payoffs.

Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) was “pleased to have the opportunity to review the many challenges and opportunities” for the US Antarctic Program and noted that “our ability to address them will inevitably depend on what decisions we make about the larger federal budget in the coming months.”  She wanted to know whether the science community has any concerns about the recommendations from the Blue Ribbon Panel and how the NSF can work with the scientific community to ensure that short-term disruptions from the implementation of the recommendations are kept to a minimum.  Lastly, she was also interested in learning about the scientific priorities for the US Antarctic program and how the US can benefit from this research.   

Norman Augustine, Chair of the Panel, laid out the purpose of the US Antarctic Program and highlighted that in the view of the Panel the program “has been and is being extremely well managed.”   Augustine noted that there were “a number of opportunities to reduce logistical demands” and that “the Antarctic program does not have a capital budget… that is not unique to the [NSF] Office of Polar Programs.”   In his written testimony, Augustine described specific financial recommendations in order to address funding the ten policy recommendations from the Blue Ribbon Panel stating that “a seven-year financial breakeven is considered by the Panel to be a reasonable investment, particularly when compared to the cost of not making it.”

Subra Suresh, Director of the National Science Foundation, highlighted three discoveries as a result of scientific work in the Antarctic region:  identifying the ozone hole, discovering antifreeze proteins, and the recent discovery of the Phoenix Galaxy Cluster which generates the highest rate of stars per year ever documented.  The US Antarctic Program is currently “operating under the threat of multiple single points of failure,” identified Suresh.  He chartered a group within NSF to respond to the threats of program failure by creating a 5-year investment plan and a strategy to implement the recommendations issued in the report. 

General Duncan McNabb, USAF (Ret), highlighted the importance of the infrastructure in the McMurdo area of Antarctica stating that it is the “ideal location to support NASA’s satellite links and long duration balloon program and [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s] and [the Department of Defense’s] polar space programs.”  He next underscored “the importance of using an enterprise transportation approach in the Antarctic region.”  Lastly he emphasized the “importance of a capital budget and multiyear funding for long term logistics infrastructure support.”

Warren Zapol, Chair of the National Research Council’s Committee on Future Science Opportunities in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, provided recommendations to guide the direction of global change research and discovery science in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.  These recommendations included developing a large-scale interdisciplinary observing network and support a new generation of Earth system models, support basic research in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, “design and implement a mechanism for international collaboration,” ”exploit the host of emerging technologies including cyberinfrastructure and developing novel and robust sensors,” “coordinate an integrated polar education program, and continue strong logistical support for Antarctic science.”  Zapol also offered his personal view that there is a “need for clearly defined and better communication channels and interaction between NSF leadership, the logical support contractors, and working scientists in Antarctica.” 

During the question period, Hall asked Augustine about the cost estimates that he mentioned in his testimony, Augustine responded that NSF was carrying out a cost analysis of the recommendations in the Blue Ribbon Panel report. 

Johnson expressed her concern about short-term versus long-term research funding.  She requested suggestions from witnesses to balance research investments to ensure that there is a solid future for research given the current fiscal climate.  Augustine responded that with each percentage increase in funding for scientists and engineers about a million jobs are created.  He also expressed his concern about ensuring that young people are attracted to careers in science.  Suresh argued that the return on investment in NSF programs is many times what the taxpayers pay to support research grants at the agency.  Suresh was also concerned about the ability for the US to be internationally competitive in science fields and to compete for global talent.

Aline D. McNaull
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics