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NSF & Congress

Hearing Summary: U.S. Antarctic Program External Panel

March 12, 1997

At the hearing of the House Committee on Science on March 12, 1997, Norman R. Augustine, Chairman of the U.S. Antarctic Program External Panel, reported to the Committee on the External Panel's recommendations to improve the U.S. research facilities in the Antarctic. Full Committee Chairman, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-WI), Acting Ranking Member, Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN) and other members of the Committee praised Mr. Augustine for the quality of the External Panel's work and recommendations.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Augustine summarized the recommendations of the panel and indicated that the Panel's final report will be ready in April, 1997. Mr. Augustine highlighted the geopolitical importance of continued U.S. presence in the Antarctic. He also made a strong case for the maintenance of all three Antarctic stations, McMurdo, South Pole Station and Palmer, as each contributes uniquely to the overall research and logistics program. He commended the quality of the science and the management by the National Science Foundation (NSF) of the logistical, as well as research program in the Antarctic. Furthermore, he recommended that the U.S. continue to pursue international cooperation in research, but maintain full responsibility for maintaining the research facilities. Finally, he suggested that the Department of State or other federal agency develop a plan for managing the burgeoning tourism in the Antarctic and that transfer of many of the Navy's traditional support functions to civilian contractors continue.

The remainder of Mr. Augustine's testimony was devoted to the External Panel's recommendation that South Pole Station be upgraded to ensure satisfactory health and safety standards are met. The External Panel has estimated that a total of $145 million over five years was needed to adequately upgrade the Antarctic facilities, including $125 million dollars over five years to upgrade South Pole Station, $5 million immediately to bring the facility up to satisfactory condition until the more extensive upgrade could be made, and $15 million to upgrade Palmer and McMurdo. The Panel has identified $30 million from cost reductions through greater efficiencies and $20 million from the reduction of science until the health and safety upgrades are met, leaving a total of $95 million in new funds needed to bring the facility into satisfactory condition. The National Science Foundation has requested $25 million in this fiscal year's budget request, but will need an additional $70 million more over the next five years.

In addition to a discussion of how the science program will be reduced until the upgrades are completed, much of the question and answer period centered on the ability of the private sector to capitalize on their contributions to the Antarctic research program by advertising that their products can withstand the harsh realities of the Antarctic. During the Rep. Barton's line of questioning with regard to the private sector's ability to advertise the use of their products in Antarctica, Mr. Augustine pointed out that the private sector could contribute to the Antarctic program through product donations, industry-university partnerships and the privatization of logistics. With regard to concerns about the science program reductions, he clarified for the Committee that the number of people at the site in the winter would remain the same, while the summer camps could still support the overflow in the summer. He also cited the Panel's recommendation that the National Science Foundation's peer review system take into account, not only the quality of the science at the Antarctic, but the potential costs as well. Finally, he agreed that, given the geopolitical importance of the U.S. presence in Antarctica, it might be useful to look to other federal agencies, in addition to the National Science Foundation, to share the burden of the costs to upgrade the Antarctic facilities.

See also: Testimony from Dr. Lane or Mr. Augustine.