National Academies Release Report on NSF Antarctic Research

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Publication date: 
10 September 2015

"Antarctic science has global consequences.”  -- Committee on the Development of a Strategic Vision for the U.S. Antarctic Program

“The NSF/PLR [Division of Polar Programs] model of supporting research across a broad spectrum of disciplinary areas, in response to proposals from across the research community, continues to be effective in sustaining and stimulating a vibrant scientific enterprise.”  So concludes the Committee on the Development of a Strategic Vision for the U.S. Antarctic Program of the Polar Research Board, Division on Earth and Life Sciences of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine in a prepublication release of a thoughtful report on Antarctic research.   The 170-page report, supported by an award from the National Science Foundation, was written by a seventeen member committee co-chaired by Robin Bell of Columbia University and Robert Weller of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

A Strategic Vision for NSF Investments in Antarctic and Southern Ocean Research is described as a “decadal-scale vision for NSF’s Antarctic and Southern Ocean Research.”  It builds on previous advisory studies beginning with a review by NSF and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in 2010.  The committee’s work was informed by nation-wide outreach efforts attracting 450 participants as well as meetings with key federal agencies and other organizations.  Target audiences for the report include the National Science Foundation, federal research agencies, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Congress.   NSF’s research in Antarctic is supported by annual appropriations of approximately $325 million (of which $70 million is for support of various science programs).

The committee made three major recommendations:
“A Core Program of Broad-Based Investigator-Driven Research”

“NSF should continue to support a core program of broad-based, investigator-driven research and actively look for opportunities to gain efficiencies and improve coordination and data sharing among independent studies.

“Larger-Scale Priority Research Initiatives”

“NSF should pursue the following as strategic priorities in Antarctic and Southern Ocean research for the coming decade” in sea level rise, adaptation of biota to a changing environment, and a cosmic microwave background program.

“Foundations for a Robust Antarctic and Southern Ocean Research Program”

“NSF should prioritize the following actions to advance infrastructure and logistical support for the priority research initiatives recommended here – actions that will likewise benefit many other research activities supported under NSF/PLR’s core programs.”  Included in these actions are increasing deep-field access, new icebreakers, coordinating and augmenting existing terrestrial networks, enhanced sampling of the Southern Ocean, improving communication capacity, and data management.

The report reviews these recommendations at length in several chapters, including a discussion of “A Next-Generation Cosmic Microwave Background Program.”

It has long been recognized that the U.S. fleet of icebreakers used in facilitating research at both poles is deficient.  With only two functioning vessels the U.S. fleet stands in great contrast to the Russian fleet of 40 icebreakers with ten more under construction.  During his recent trip to Alaska President Obama announced the Administration’s intention to reduce the time to acquire a new icebreaker from 2022 to 2020. It has been estimated by the Congressional Research Service that the cost of a new icebreaker will range between $900 million and $1 billion.