Science Committee Examines US Antarctic Program

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Publication date: 
19 December 2012

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.