Chapter VI

Conclusions and Recommendations

Based on the material developed in the previous five chapters, the NSTC concludes that the U.S. should be in Antarctica because of the unique and significant opportunities it provides for basic and applied research. The U.S. benefits more than any other nation from the Antarctic Treaty arrangements. Our active and influential presence accords the U.S. a decisive role in the Treaty's activities-based decision making process (see Appendix I) and establishes the political and legal standards that make the Treaty effective. Therefore we believe it essential that the United States maintain an active and influential presence in Antarctica (see Appendix II). Further, the NSTC believes that, at the current level of investment, the USAP is cost effective in advancing American scientific and geopolitical objectives, and from a science perspective, the NSTC supports the continuation of three stations with year-round presence.

Maintaining an active and influential presence in the hostile Antarctic environment is costly. The science carried out in Antarctica, described earlier in this report, is unique to the special conditions of the region. The present annual investment of $196M sustains a research program of very high quality that is of great interest to a broad scientific community. Furthermore, the research results often imply consequences for human activities that go well beyond those usually associated with fundamental research. The examples cited - the possible collapse of the west Antarctic ice sheet, the circulation of deep ocean currents, and the hole in the ozone layer - have potentially significant consequences for all Earth's inhabitants. Over the past decade, these particular issues have been of increasing interest to policy makers, the general public, and the scientific community, and they account for much of the present attention given to this program. Elements of the biological research in the USAP deal with the possibilities for life forms emerging and surviving under extreme conditions, keys to the very origin of life on Earth and elsewhere. The South Pole's cold, dry atmosphere, its six months of darkness for continuous viewing of the southern sky, and the presence of three kilometers of clear ice have stimulated astronomers and astrophysicists to locate world class observational facilities at the Pole. These experiments help inform us of the vast Universe that lies beyond our reach and define the context of our existence.

America's sense of exploration is satisfied both by the science and by the challenge inherent in work in the largely unknown region of Antarctica and its surrounding oceans. The three research stations, McMurdo, Palmer, and Amundsen-Scott, are strategically located on the Continent and have valid, scientific and operational missions that are vastly different. As shown in Tables IV-1 and IV-2, the balance of resource allocation between research support and operations in the USAP is more favorable than previously recognized. That is, the balance is typical of other large-scale U.S. scientific programs that require expensive platforms for the conduct of their research. When evaluating the investment in the USAP, it must be kept in mind that the Program has been given the responsibility for providing the supporting infrastructure for the entire U.S. program of research in the Antarctic region, south of 60 south latitude.

The possibility of reduced budgets raise issues of priorities, particularly when capital investments such as the renovation of the South Pole Station come to the fore. Priority decisions dealing with the fate of the USAP should reflect its position as a National Program serving scientific, environmental, and geopolitical concerns. If the USAP is to continue its excellent research activity, providing the U.S. with an active and influential presence in the Antarctic, it will have to pursue further efficiencies and cost savings aggressively in response to budgeting constraints.

The NSTC recognizes that maintaining the high scientific value of the program in the face of budgetary uncertainties places a high premium on detailed understanding of options for cost reduction. The report describes anticipated savings from further management efficiencies and program retrenchments, and the scientific losses associated with the latter. A specially constituted external panel, including members from the scientific, technological, and management communities accustomed to operations in challenging environments, should be established. This panel should be free to examine various infrastructure, management, and scientific options, including a reduction in scope commensurate with a range of budgetary scenarios. A several-year freeze in total USAP funding (including South Pole Station construction) is one of the options to be analyzed. Timely input to the budget process, starting with the FY98 budget, is highly desirable. The NSTC recommends that an external panel be convened by NSF to explore options for sustaining the high level of USAP science activity under realistic constrained funding levels.

Given the obvious strategic and scientific importance of the South Pole Station, the U.S. should not abandon it. Year-round activity continues to be important. The station is nearing the end of its useful lifetime. The NSF had developed several options for replacing the station that allowed the scientific program to proceed without interruption. However, recently realized fiscal constraints force a re-examination of the size, lifetime, and capability of the Station. The character of the new facility must reflect an anticipated, affordable scientific program at the South Pole in balance with the rest of the USAP's activities. Further, careful note must be taken of new technologies that can provide the needed scientific data in the most cost effective way, including reduced requirements for human presence at the Pole.

International collaboration in research and cooperation in logistics are both attractive and necessary in the Antarctic. As a result, they occur frequently. The internationalization of the construction and subsequent operation of a new South Pole Station raises important issues with regard to the effectiveness of the station management and dilution of the Nation's influential presence at the South Pole. That is, international participation is to be encouraged, commensurate with the scientific involvement of other countries, but sufficient U.S. operational control and authority should be maintained to enforce U.S. safety and environmental standards and to reinforce geopolitical objectives with our South Pole presence. The NSTC supports initiation of discussions with potential international partners.

As a result of the advanced age of the South Pole Station and a heightened awareness of safety and environmental concerns, several matters must be dealt with at the existing station. Among the facilities in need of immediate attention are the vehicle maintenance facility, the power plant and the fuel storage tanks. Major deficiencies at these facilities increase the probability of serious accidents or environmental insults and create additional maintenance costs in the present operating budget. This situation must be remedied as a high priority. The USAP should give highest priority to correcting critical health, safety, and environmental issues at the current station.

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