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NSF External Panel supports replacing Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station

On 12 March 1997, Norman R. Augustine, Chairman of the U.S. Antarctic Program External Panel, presented to House Committee on Science 22 findings and 12 recommendations ( that resulted from the panel's 9-month examination of infrastructure, management, and scientific options. Their findings and recommendations were developed to maintain a high-quality research program and implement U.S. policy to provide an active and influential presence in Antarctica, while operating within a realistic budget. The panel's review, the results of which are published in The United States in Antarctica-Report of the U.S. Antarctic Program External Panel (April 1997) (, emphasized the high geopolitical, scientific, and environmental value of the antarctic program.


The United States has continuously supported antarctic projects for over 40 years. A part of this effort, the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) has three principal objectives: presence, science, and stewardship. The stated U.S. policy toward Antarctica is that the continent should be maintained as a peaceful territory, free of national claims disputes and available for the benefit of all humankind. Although the Antarctic Treaty system has created a political environment that today is largely characterized by cooperation and mutual understanding, seven nations have made claims to parts of Antarctica, some overlapping, and potential disagreements remain an underlying reality.

In April 1996, the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) completed a review of U.S. antarctic policy, requested by Senate Appropriations Committee on the Veterans Administration, Housing and Urban Development, and Independent Agencies. The Committee, aware that the National Science Foundation was considering a South Pole redevelopment project, asked the NSTC to examine the policy contained in Presidential Memorandum 6646 (1985), particularly ". . . the need for a year-round presence, the need for three stations, and the roles of NSF, the Department of Defense, and other Government agencies." The Committee asked that the NSTC consider U.S. antarctic policy in the context of the value of science performed, the affordability of a continued U.S. presence, and options for reducing the annual logistics and operational budget.

In its report to Congress, NSTC's Committee on Fundamental Science stated that

. . . from a Policy perspective . . .maintaining an active and influential presence in Antarctica, including year-round operation of the South Pole Station, is essential to U.S. interests.

. . . the National Science Foundation has implemented U.S. policy in an effective manner, especially by substantially improving environmental stewardship, broadening the science program, and privatizing some operation elements of the Program to reduce costs.

. . . the USAP . . . research program is of very high quality and of great interest to a broad scientific community.

. . . at the current level of investment, the USAP is cost effective in advancing American scientific and geopolitical objectives, and from a science perspective, [should] support the continuation of three stations with year-round presence.

. . . USAP should give highest priority to correcting critical health, safety, and environmental issues at the current [South Pole] Station.

The Committee also recommended that NSF convene an external panel to "explore options for sustaining the high level of USAP science activity under realistic constrained funding levels."

In response to this final recommendation, Dr. Neal Lane, Director of NSF, established the U.S. Antarctic Program External Panel on 16 August 1996. The charge given the 11-member panel ( by Dr. Lane was to "examine and make recommendations concerning the stations and logistics systems that support the science while maintaining appropriate environmental, safety, and health standards; the efficiency and appropriateness of the management of these support systems; and how and at what level the science programs are implemented." The panel members were also asked to consider the eventual replacement of Amundsen­Scott South Pole Station and other USAP infrastructure.

External Panel findings

In his 12 March testimony to House Committee on Science, Mr. Augustine summarized the External Panel's recommendations and answered questions, most of which centered on the ability of the private sector to capitalize on their contributions to antarctic research.

The panel offered a series of 12 specific recommendations (, each of which is discussed in its report and all of which are included in appendix IV of the report. Overall, the panel concluded that the geopolitical importance assigned to a permanent U.S. presence in Antarctica, particularly at the South Pole, is warranted and that this justifies a year-round presence at several locations, including the South Pole. The panel also emphasized that, by working in cooperation with many nations, the United States is playing an important role in preserving a fragile and nearly pristine ecological system that serves as an indicator of potential global environmental trends. The panel endorsed the NSTC's evaluation that the research being performed in Antarctica is of the same high quality and relevance as that being supported elsewhere by the NSF and that it uses the unique antarctic environment well and addresses significant scientific issues that have important human consequences. On behalf of the panel, Mr. Augustine commended the NSF's management of the logistical and research programs.

Because of the unique physical conditions in Antarctica, the continent is a one-of-a-kind scientific laboratory that enables scientists to investigate phenomena ranging from the microscopic to the Earth-shaping. Changing circumstances, however, particularly federal funding pressures, have resulted in a major realignment of support functions in the Antarctic, including the withdrawal of the U.S. Navy. The Navy had been involved in early exploration and, since the 1950s, research support. As the Navy withdraws, the Department of Defense has been shifting air transport functions provided by ski-equipped Hercules airplanes to the Air National Guard, and NSF has transferred other functions to civilian contractors. As a result, this period is particularly significant, not only in terms of the need for intense management attention but also as an opportunity to search for new ways of reducing costs and of conducting research and related activities.

Because of the NSF's traditional focus on the conduct of science and because of the character of the federal budgeting process, which, unlike commercial practice, does not ordinarily include a depreciation account to provide for the renewal of fixed assets, aging U.S. antarctic facilities are costly to maintain and, in some cases, of arguable safety. In the panel's opinion, the United States would not send a ship to sea or a spacecraft to orbit in the condition of many facilities in Antarctica, especially those at the South Pole. Consequently, they agreed with NSF that steps need to be taken without delay to remedy the existing conditions, particularly of Amundsen­Scott South Pole Station.

NSF has estimated that constructing a replacement station at the South Pole would cost between $150 million and $200 million and that the process would take about 5 years to budget and 8 years to build. After reviewing the design currently being considered by NSF, the panel recommended that the replacement station be reduced in size and cost. They also felt that additional savings must be generated in USAP to offset a substantial fraction of the cost of a replacement facility.

Its principal conclusion is that the South Pole Station needs to be replaced soon for economic, safety, and operational reasons and that modest upgrades are needed at Palmer and McMurdo Stations. Although NSF will correct urgent safety shortcomings at South Pole Station using $25 million funded during FY97, the panel recommended that the other renovations (a minimum of $15 million at Palmer and McMurdo Stations) and the replacement of South Pole Station be funded by a downsizing of the proposed new South Pole Station design, reducing the cost to $125 million excluding $5 million of interim expenses to keep the existing station functional until replacement.

The panel also concluded that a cumulative reallocation of $20 million from science grants and science support between FY98 and FY02 and the generation of at least $30 million in savings through cost-reduction actions already underway would offset costs proposed for infrastructure improvements. Although this represents a considerable reduction in new funding needs relative to previous estimates, it still produces a cumulative shortfall of $95 million over the 5 years during which the replacement South Pole Station is to be funded. It is the conclusion of the panel that these residual funds are not to be found within the resources of the USAP without severely undermining the viability of the science program and degrading health and safety conditions. Consequently, the panel "...recommend[ed] that additional funds in the amount of $95 million should be added to the NSF budget" over the next 5 fiscal years (1998 to 2002) "to permit the phased replacement of the existing South Pole Station." (The United States in Antarctica: Report of the U.S. Antarctic Program External Panel, p. 71.)

Related budget information

For more on FY98 Congressional budget actions, see Recent Congressional actions related to the NSF FY98 budget.

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