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NSF & Congress

Hearing Summary: Basic Research Subcommittee Gets Update on Antarctic

July 23, 1996

The House Basic Science Subcommittee of the Science Committee used the National Science and Technology Council's review of the U.S. Antarctic Program as the focal point for a July 23 oversight hearing on the future of NSF's role in Antarctica.

Dr. Ernest Moniz, Associate Director for Science at OSTP, provided an overview of the Report on the United States Antarctic Program (USAP). The report, issued in April, responded to a Congressional request for a reassessment of U.S. policy in the Antarctic in light of the end of the cold war, the current constrained budget environment, and discussions concerning the replacement of the South Pole Station. The report focused on the science conducted under the USAP in three broad categories: understanding the Earth and its large-scale systems; science that can be done only (or best) in Antarctica; and exploration of the geographical frontier.

The Report concluded with six findings and recommendations:

  1. Maintaining a year round presence in Antarctica, including the South Pole Station, is essential to U.S. interests;
  2. NSF has implemented U.S. policy in an effective manner;
  3. The USAP research program is of high quality and broad scientific interest;
  4. At the current level of investment, the USAP is cost-effective in advancing scientific and geopolitical objectives;
  5. Recommends an external panel to explore options for sustaining the USAP science activities within realistic funding levels; and
  6. The USAP should give highest priority to correcting health, safety and environmental issues a the current South Pole station.

Dr. Neal Sullivan provided an overview of the research activities currently being supported by NSF and a discussion of the logistics support of the USAP. He noted that the ongoing transition from Navy logistics support to the Air National Guard and private providers met both cost containment goals and training goals of the Guard.

R. Tucker Scully, Director of the Office of Ocean Affairs, U.S. Department of State, provided the foreign policy context for the USAP and discussed the Antarctic Treaty which ensure scientific access to the Antarctic and prevents further territorial claims, military activity, the taking of flora or fauna, mineral exploitation, and environmental degradation. The U.S. presence at the South Pole, Scully testified, provides a demonstration of U.S. commitment to research and to the stability of the treaty system.

Hon. Robert Pirie, Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Installations and Environment), discussed the involvement of the U.S. Navy in the Antarctic, other DoD logistic support, and the rationale for the transition to Air National Guard support for the snow ski-equipped LC-130 operations. That transition began in March of this year and is expected to be completed in March of 1999. Commercialization of base support functions is nearly complete and commercialization of Antarctic helicopter operations is underway, making the single point management of the LC-130 operations by the Air National Guard as the final step in the transition.

Chairman Schiff (R-NM) asked about the differences between the Arctic and Antarctic geography, environment, and research opportunities and quizzed Dr. Sullivan about his research on life forms in the Antarctic ice. He inquired about the participation of other nations --26 are signatories to the Treaty, but 13 have ongoing research activities. The USAP represents between one-fourth and one-third of the total research being conducted in Antarctica.

Rep. Bud Cramer (D-AL) inquired whether the $25 million in the FY 1996 budget for health, safety and environmental improvements at the South Pole Station would be permanent improvements, regardless of future plans to rebuild the station. Dr. Sullivan responded that the new power plant, garage, and environmental improvements would be integrated into a new station if plans were approved. Rep. Cramer asked if the USAP had sought international contributions for a South Pole station. Dr. Sullivan stated that international support for scientific infrastructure was a possibility, but difficulties in joint management of a facility, combined with the singular U.S. capacity to provide logistical support to the South Pole made such collaboration impractical. Mr. Scully, in response to a question about possible contributions from the State Department for the South Pole Station, responded that the station was a national resource to which funds were provided on behalf of national interests, and that it was appropriate that NSF both provide those resources and manage them.

Rep. Volkmer (D-MO) requested (and Mr. Scully provided) a brief history of U.S. involvement in the Antarctic and suggested that Members be invited to see the station for themselves. He also asked if the old station would be dismantled and removed if a new station were constructed. Dr. Sullivan responded that it would be removed. Rep. Gutknecht (R-MN) asked where the funds for a new South Pole station would come from, to which Dr. Moniz replied that, in addition to the $25 million in FY 1996, new funds would have to come from savings in other areas.

The second panel consisted of Dr. Robert Rutford, University of Texas, and Dr. David Clark, University of Wisconsin, who testified on research opportunities in the polar regions, and commented on the NSTC report in generally favorable terms.

See also: Testimony from Dr. Sullivan.