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NSF & Congress
Hearing Summary: House Science Committee Basic Research Subcommittee, House Science Committee Hearing on the US Antarctic Program

June 9, 1999

On June 9th the House Science Committee's Subcommittee on Basic Research held an oversight hearing on the future of the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP), focusing on modernization of the South Pole Station, the transfer of logistical support for the Navy to the Air National Guard (ANG), long-term reconstruction plans for McMurdo; tourism, satellites, weather, and air traffic control. Witness included Dr. Karl A. Erb, Director, Office of Polar Programs, NSF; Brigadier General Archie J. Berberian II, Chief of Staff, NYANG; and Dr. Donal Manahan, Chairman, Polar Research Board, National Research Council and Director, Marine Biology, Department of Biological Sciences, USC.

Dr. Erb stressed the continuing need to find balance between the increasing pressure from scientists to do research in Antarctica and the logistics needed to support that research in a safe and efficient manner -- while emphasizing the importance of this research to issues of global concern. He noted that the future of the program depends on the ability to modernize the U.S. stations that support this important research, namely South Pole, McMurdo and Palmer. These modernization efforts not only include physical structures, but also weather forecasting, air traffic control, satellite coverage, etc. The South Pole Station modernization was approved following recommendations made by a task force headed by Norm Augustine in 1997. Dr. Erb stated that Congressional actions to date have allowed for advanced procurements which, in turn, are helping to keep the modernization efforts and environmental upgrades on time and on budget.

General Berberian gave a brief background of the ANG's involvement in logistics support in Antarctica, noting that with the three-year transition from the Navy complete, NSF should achieve economies of scale because of the by-polar mission of the ANG to support Arctic as well as Antarctic missions. This ability, he said, should meet the USAP/DOD needs for more than 20 years. Touching on issues of air traffic control and weather forcasting, he noted NSF's diligent efforts to work with its contractors to improve weather forecasting. A recent risk management assessment by the 109th ANG, Air Force and NSF of flight operations, management operations and logistics and maintenance procedures, he said, will lead to a comprehensive list of procedures to follow.

Dr. Manahan strongly emphasized that American scientists feel the USAP is the best program in the world. The Polar Research Board surveyed scientists from many different fields on the impact South Pole Station modernization would have on their science, and how the modernization would affect science over the next few years. Geoscientists noted the most impact since their research takes them all over the continent, requiring more support, yet they also felt the impact is manageable. Overwhelmingly scientists feel that the modernization will improve scientific opportunities in the future.

Members of the Committee expressed their desire to visit Antarctica and inquired broadly about the USAP. Chairman Smith asked how research conducted in Antarctica is chosen and how these projects are funded. Dr. Erb stated that all research projects are subject to peer review with most awards for three-year durations with 60% of the budget committed in a year, leaving 30% for new programs. When questioned on how the USAP uses GPRA to study support for science, Dr. Erb stated that GPRA fits well with USAP plans and is a useful management tool. Ranking Member E.B. Johnson addressed the issue of aging stations and safety, including Y2K. Dr. Erb explained the environmental and modernization efforts at South Pole and the benefits this will provide for the next 25 years, as well as current NSF efforts to address Y2K. Rep. Johnson also questioned whether NSF had established research priorities in order to spread the pain during South Pole construction, to which Dr. Manahan noted this is being done, especially in the geosciences.

Rep. Morella asked about the ratification of the Antarctic environmental treaty, and Dr. Erb noted that this was a good experiment. Although many countries have territorial claims, it is agreed that a nation's presence on the continent should be to promote scientific research or environmental stewardship. Addressing the issue of international collaboration, Dr. Erb discussed the U.S. participation in the Cape Roberts project lead by New Zealand, as well as collaborative efforts with Russia and France at Siple Dome on global warming issues. General Berberian addressed the flight environment for international collaboration noting that all nations generally use the same procedures.

Rep. Woolsey focused her remarks on risk management, the risk to the environment vs. the benefits of the science. Dr. Erb noted that personal and environmental risks are kept to a minimum and discussed the use of environmental permits and training sessions for tour operators. Dr. Manahan added that the size of operations at McMurdo is equivalent to a large high school - the footprints are small. General Berberian said the transition to the ANG has also left smaller footprints. Rep. Rivers addressed the subject of tourism and the effect this has on research. Dr. Erb noted two different groups of tourists, large ships and adventure tourists. It is this second group, he said, that gets into the most trouble sometimes requiring resources (mainly aircraft) to be diverted for rescue, but that these costs are recovered. He added that disruption of science is kept to a minimum.

Rep. Etheridge asked about the degree of international cooperation and whether the Congress should fund more or fewer large research projects. Dr. Erb stated that international collaboration will be increasingly important in the future, and that the next challenge is to get funding agencies to work together. Dr. Manahan said scientists from other countries are staggered by the U.S. program and want to be more involved. On the issue of expanding our base with other countries, Dr. Manahan cautioned that hard feelings might ensue should American scientists be denied spaces to foreign scientists.

In closing, Rep. Morella noted how refreshing it is to hold a hearing on an oversight program that is going so well with so few problems.

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