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Report sets new goals for U.S. Antarctic Program

U.S. research in Antarctica needs fresh initiatives and better equipment, a new report by a committee of the National Academies concludes. But how to afford them remains a conundrum.

The report—commissioned by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which funds the United States Antarctic Program (USAP)—is the third major assessment of the program in 5 years, aiming to streamline the program in an era of relatively flat budgets and rising infrastructure costs. It builds on a 2011 report by the National Research Council, which identified important areas of future research for Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. This time, NSF asked the committee to lay out a strategic vision for research on the continent over the next decade, identifying specific research priorities while taking into account the program’s logistical needs. NSF and its Division of Polar Programs invest about $70 million a year in science and about $255 million in infrastructure and logistics.

“Earlier reports were blue-sky,” supporting curiosity-driven research on the continent without setting priorities, says Robin Bell, a co-chair of the report and a glaciologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. The new report, which takes into account input from more than 450 scientists in the Antarctic research community, does call for continuing a “core program” of such investigator-driven research. But it also advocates for the creation of three priority research initiatives.

The Changing Ice Initiative would fund research addressing both what’s driving Antarctica’s ice mass loss and its future course, as well as how it could contribute to global sea-level rise. The Antarctic Genomics Initiative would take stock of the uniquely isolated and adapted life in the region. “It’s a perfect lab for looking at organisms in extreme conditions, and for how they’ll change in a changing environment,” Bell says. The third priority area would create a new, next-generation Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) Program to probe deeper into the origins of the universe. A follow-on to the research already conducted at the BICEP telescope at the South Pole, the proposed program would include a family of telescopes at the South Pole and Chile.

In choosing these priorities, Bell says, the committee looked for topics with  compelling science, high potential for societal impact, and high “partnership potential” both within NSF, between NSF and other agencies, and with international partners. Projects that would require too many resources were rejected. In particular, the report notes that a proposal to build a second-generation IceCube neutrino observatory fell to concerns that it would overwhelmingly siphon off logistical support from other projects.

Indeed, the priorities closely overlap with six overarching research priorities outlined last year in Nature by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), a group of scientists and policymakers from 22 countries. “Overall there’s a great confluence of thinking, within the U.S. and internationally, about Antarctica and Southern Ocean science priorities,” says Chuck Kennicutt, an oceanographer at Texas A&M University in College Station, who is also a former president of SCAR.

But Kennicutt notes that it’s not clear how these projects would be funded within NSF’s constrained Antarctic budget. And parceling out funds between the new theme-driven proposals and principal investigator-driven projects will be only one part of NSF’s looming Antarctic challenge. Conducting research in Antarctica is already expensive—and infrastructure upgrades are sorely needed. In 2012, a blue-ribbon panel convened by NSF identified multiple areas of Antarctic infrastructure requiring improvement.

The new report adds to this sense of urgency, calling for better weather forecasting, improved overland and air access to remote field sites in the deep interior of the continent, and greater information technology capabilities. Data transmission capacity from the South Pole station is already inadequate, and the proposed next-generation CMB  program will increase the station’s bandwidth needs further. And then there’s ship support: Now, the United States has only one heavy icebreaker, the 40-year-old Polar Star, capable of clearing thick ice from McMurdo Sound to deliver supplies to the station there. The U.S. program has had to rely on foreign icebreakers for this in some past seasons.

But the priority setting should help researchers make the case for more investment. Last year’s SCAR report and the new Academies report, Kennicutt says, are forcing researchers to “decide what’s important” and to justify their work to a broader audience. “These reports lay out why this is compelling science, why we want to spend the money it costs to be in Antarctica,” he adds. “They show that the community is organized.”