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OPP Office Advisory Committee

XXXVIII Meeting of the Advisory Committee for the Office of Polar Programs

18-19 May 2011 Arlington, Virginia

Members present: 

Eric Saltzman (Chair), Earth System Science, University of California, Irvine
Cecilia Bitz, Atmospheric Science, University of Washington
Mary-Elena Carr, Columbia Climate Center, Columbia University
David J. Close, Supply Chain Management, Michigan State University
Mark Fahnestock, Complex Systems, University of New Hampshire
Linda Green, School of Anthropology, University of Arizona
Gretchen Hofmann, Marine Sciences, University of California, Santa Barbara
Orville H. Huntington, City of Huslia, Alaska
Jeanne Kosch, Occupational Safety, Health, and Environment, Crofton, Maryland
John Kovac, Astronomy, Harvard University
Marigold Linton (CEOSE Representative), University of Kansas
Eric Post, Department of Biology, Pennsylvania State University
Jordan G. Powers, Mesoscale and Microscale Meteorology, NCAR
Jeff Severinghaus, Geosciences, University of California, San Diego
Kevin Speer, Oceanography, Florida State University
Terry Wilson, Geological Sciences, The Ohio State University

OPP senior staff present: 

Karl A. Erb, Director
Kelly Kenison Falkner, Deputy Director
Susanne M. LaFratta-Decker, Executive Officer (Acting)
Scott G. Borg, Director, Division of Antarctic Sciences
Simon N. Stephenson, Director, Division of Arctic Sciences
Brendan P. Kelly, Deputy Director, Division of Arctic Sciences
Polly A. Penhale, Head (Acting), Office of Polar Environment, Health & Safety
Brian W. Stone, Director, Division of Antarctic Infrastructure & Logistics

OPP program officers present:

George Blaisdell, Antarctic Operations Manager
Nikoosh Carlo, AAAS Fellow
Lisa Clough, Antarctic Integrated System Science Director
Jessie L. Crain, Antarctic Research Support Manager
Renee Crain, Arctic Research Support and Logistics Manager
Henrietta Edmonds, Arctic Natural Sciences Program Director
Alexandra Isern, Antarctic Earth Sciences Program Director
James N. Karcher, Safety & Health Officer
Anna M. Kerttula de Echave, Arctic Social Sciences Program Director
Erica Key, Arctic System Science Associate Program Manager
Timothy M. McGovern, Ocean Projects Manager
Peter Milne, Antarctic Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences Program Director
Julie M. Palais, Antarctic Glaciology Program Director
Vladimir Papitashvili, Antarctic Astrophysics and Geospace Science Program Director
Mike Scheuermann, Antarctic Aviation Projects
Patrick D. Smith, Antarctic Technology Development Manager
Neil R. Swanberg, Arctic System Science Program Director
Peter West, Polar Outreach and Education Program Director
William J. Wiseman
, Arctic Natural Sciences Program Manager


The committee met on 18 and 19 May 2011 at the National Science Foundation, room 1235, 4201 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, Virginia 22230, to provide guidance, recommendations, and oversight on how OPP can best serve science, promote education, ensure workforce diversity, and set priorities.  The meeting, chartered under the Federal Advisory Committee Act, was, like all prior ones, open to the public.  Members represent a broad range of polar science and logistics domains, geographical locations, type of institution as well as other elements of diversity. The Advisory Committee welcomes communications from the research community regarding NSF’s polar programs; they normally serve 3 years and meet twice per year. 

OPP Director’s report

Budget.  The Administration’s fiscal 2011 request to the Congress for NSF was $6.02-billion for the Research and Related Activities account (which includes OPP), 8 percent more than fiscal 2010.  The awarded amount is $5.56-billion, slightly less than the fiscal 2010 amount.  The OPP portion has not yet been established.

Ships.  The Swedish icebreaker Oden breaks the McMurdo channel and provides science support under a 5-year agreement that could be interrupted this coming season if Sweden decides it needs the ship in the Baltic to counter unusually heavy sea ice.  NSF received bids 16 May 2011 to continue the research icebreaker service that Nathaniel B. Palmer now provides; a contract is to be awarded by 30 September 2011.  The Coast Guard will decommission its icebreaker Polar Sea and use parts to help repair Polar Star by 2013 for another 7 to 10 years of service (the two ships entered service in the mid-1970s).  Science mission requirements for a new polar research vessel are being refreshed, and a preliminary report is expected this year.  (See “Ocean Research Infrastructure” below.)

Arctic policy.  A Presidential memorandum of July 22, 2010 places the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee (IARPC) under the President’s National Science and Technology Council.  The Director of the NSF remains Chair of the committee under this new structure.

Antarctic program review.  The National Research Council will finish by this fall its assessment of U.S. Antarctic research needs over the next two decades.  The President’s science advisor and the NSF Director will appoint a Blue Ribbon panel to evaluate (by March 2012) operational support of those needs.  (See “NRC and Blue Ribbon Antarctic studies,” below.)

Proposal review criteria.  The National Science Board is considering whether NSF’s existing proposal review criteria should be revised. 

Data management.  Worldwide interest exists to make more readily available data and research results that taxpayers fund.  NSF is involved in data and publication related domestic and international discussions.

Family friendly workplace.  The NSF Director has met with Association of American Universities presidents to consider ways to improve opportunities for research employees to leave their work temporarily for childcare and to reenter the workforce successfully.

Staff changes.  OPP hired five new staff and promoted two.  Two rotators are near the ends of their OPP tours, and NSF is recruiting for their replacements.  William T. Colston, Director, Antarctic Infrastructure and Logistics Division, died suddenly on 21 January 2011 at the age of 42. 

Sustainability research

Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability, or SEES, is an NSF-wide initiative, begun in 2010, supporting research to understand and overcome barriers to sustainable human well-being in the face of environmental change.  Solicitations in 2011 address coupled natural and human systems, international collaborations, and research coordination networks.  The committee discussed opportunities and challenges for polar scientists (Arctic and Antarctic situations differ re sustainability research).  The discussion included whether the OPP community should take on this large-scale interaction or continue more narrowly on science aspects, where it is guaranteed more progress.  Possibly including sustainability in the OPP vision statement was also discussed (see below).


Cyberinfrastructure Framework for 21st Century Science and Engineering (CIF21) is part of the fiscal 2012 NSF budget proposal.   The goal is to develop cyberinfrastructure that would accelerate research and education and enable new capabilities in computational and data-intensive science and engineering.  Of four thrusts, OPP would focus on community research networks and data-enabled science.  The committee discussed how best to meet polar needs and to encourage greater sharing by investigators of data.  OPP anticipates that polar sciences are not a major player in building and operating such resources, but will benefit from cyberinfrastructure developed for science generally. Nevertheless, the polar community wants to ensure that developers take polar issues into account; for example, cryosphere problems will need next-generation modeling.  The committee noted that cyberinfrastructure is useful to polar science for both operational functions, such as weather forecasting and communications (bandwidth improvement), and research.

Education and Human Resources Directorate

The attractiveness of polar science has resulted in a strong collaboration between OPP and EHR in support of polar education and outreach, because where science is exciting education follows effectively.  While teacher development has been vigorous, there is also significant opportunity outside of the formal school setting, and EHR’s Informal Science Education program has been particularly involved.  Some of these informal education projects have become models to move into schools.  Current emphases for EHR funding include scaling up successful programs and measuring and evaluating effectiveness.  The committee agreed that polar scientists’ main opportunity is the science end of the science-education partnership.  It encouraged leveraging teachers’ reach, enabling schools to capitalize on experiences outside the school, and further engagement of the commercial sector.  Educational development of those from groups underrepresented in the sciences is an important goal.

Polar Postdocs

A priority of the OPP Postdoc program is to bring new investigators to polar research.  The seven annual competitions to date (success rate: 20 percent in the last two competitions) have resulted in 33 fellowships of which 14 recipients were new to polar research.  Six of the 20 who have completed their fellowships have become PIs on OPP grants.  A committee member judged the statistics quite good and comparable to other parts of NSF.  There was interest in seeing the program grow. PIs sometimes include funding for postdocs to their research projects, and the committee judged both approaches to be worthwhile.

NRC and Blue Ribbon Antarctic studies

 An NRC committee evaluation of future science opportunities in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean over the next two decades will be completed by fall 2011.  It is drawing as feasible on existing documents and is considering the contributions and needs of all involved Federal agencies as well as international collaborative opportunities.  The NRC polled the research community and received more than 200 responses.  It consulted with the OAC chair and can take additional suggestions from OAC members and the community.  A Blue Ribbon panel to be appointed by OSTP and NSF will evaluate operational requirements needed to support this research and will report by March 2012.  NSF is funding the studies; a span of 15 years has passed since the last major review.

IPY legacy

The NRC last Fall started a project to evaluate the legacy and lessons of the 2007-2009 International Polar Year.  It is highlighting outcomes, integrating lessons learned, and recording results of the U.S. participation.  External review of the study report will start in October 2011, and the final product will be ready for the 22 April 2012 Knowledge to Action IPY conference in Montreal.  OAC members and others may contribute by completing an online survey at An objective is to identify what happened that would not have happened without IPY.  As part of this study, an IPY legacy workshop will take place in June 2011.

Ocean research infrastructure

Planning for an envisioned polar research vessel (see “OPP Director’s report” above) is proceeding. The 2006 science mission requirements are currently being refreshed with participation by UNOLS, OCE, and OPP.  A 3-day conference assembled engineers, technicians, and scientists; 200 people responded to a questionnaire regarding desired characteristics. The concept planning, final design, approval, and construction (through trials and acceptance) stages are expected to take about 9 years.  Operation could be via a contractor or by a research institution in the manner of UNOLS.

An NSF inspection of USCGC Healy will take place in June 2011; NSF is currently competing a science support arrangement for the Healy.  R/V Sikuliaq (261 ft, University of Alaska, under construction for June 2014 delivery of full science capability) will be a UNOLS Global ship with Polar Class 5 icebreaking capability, which will allow operation in first-year ice throughout the polar oceans.  The contract for Laurence M. Gould (230 ft, ice class ABS-A1, Antarctic Peninsula area research and Palmer Station resupply) was renewed in 2010.  R/V Point Sur (135 ft, UNOLS, operated by Moss Landing Marine Laboratories) is being considered for supplementing support for USAP activities.  Other envisioned ship improvements are increased Internet service, upgraded swath bathymetry, a retrieval system for unmanned research gliders, shared use of UNOLS equipment, and exchange of technicians with other research ships.  The Palmer Station pier, built 44 years ago, is being considered for upgrade, and station small-boat operations may be improved to enable a wider operating range there. 

Linking logistics, infrastructure, and research proposals

This item continued a discussion begun at the November 2010 meeting (see “Antarctic and Arctic Support Contract Procurements” in the minutes), and it referenced a report by the chief scientist of Nathaniel B. Palmer cruise 11-02 that is posted in the OPP Briefing Book area of the OAC web site for the May 2011 meeting.  The objective was to consider ways to improve the support of field science, and the focus was on the Antarctic.  Underlying the discussion was the OPP observation that that the program is being pushed to perhaps 98 percent of its ultimate capacity in terms of physical resources, personnel, and budget.  Large recent accomplishments were the Central Transantarctic Mountains Project (17 research projects, 104 personnel) and the IceCube neutrino detector project at the South Pole—Antarctica’s largest research project ever.  Procedural improvements have included a code waiver process to avoid installation of in appropriate systems, a simplified online operational requirements worksheet, standardized plans for field camps that reduce cost and setup time, and giving a head start to the planning of complex proposals that seem likely to win NSF approval.  OPP recommended additional improvements, including revising the end-of-project outbrief procedure and refreshing the support information package (SIP).

The OAC encouraged even further improvements.  Members suggested that lessons might be taken from the Arctic support contractor – despite inherent differences between the two regions – to further orient the definition of success toward individual research projects; that support personnel rather than proposing scientists might fill out the ORW in an interview setting; and that PIs be given some direct control over the funding of operational support specific to their own projects.  Whatever systemic change is made, all acknowledged that increased if not continual two-way dialog between support personnel and proposing scientists during planning and operations is critical to success.  A committee member speculated that the mishandled Cruise 11-02 do-not-freeze cargo gave evidence of a systemic problem, and NSF advised that a full inquiry was underway.

OPP offered that it is open to using the best model of support to get the science done, but certain aspects must be standardized in order to maintain economies of scale and maximize the number of science projects that can be supported effectively, and safely, in a given research season.

Transformative research, ad hoc proposals, and program solicitations

The NSB’s concern that NSF’s merit review process inhibits high-risk proposals has led to proposal guidance encouraging “pathways to new frontiers,” explicit discussion during panel reviews drawn out by the program manager, and setting aside of funds (in OPP, $2-million) for high-risk or transformative projects.  The EaGER (exploratory) and RAPID (event-driven) programs – evolved from the now discontinued SGER – encourage proposals of a nature that entail special review procedures. 

Continuing a subject from the November 2010 meeting, the committee discussed the effect of OPP’s once-a-year proposal deadlines on quality and quantity of proposals and on investigator and staff workload.  The need to allocate operational resources fairly is a big reason for these proposal-grouping deadlines, and the value of panel review is another.  A committee comment nevertheless was that deadlines can stimulate the writing and submittal of suboptimal proposals and that, absent an annual deadline, fewer and better proposals might emerge although such an outcome is more likely in a program with a higher success rate.  Other options might be two deadlines per program per year, limiting the number of proposals accepted from an investigator or an institution, decoupling proposal and logistics deadlines, relaxing deadlines for proposals not involving fieldwork, requiring preproposals, or refusing rapid resubmittal of declined proposals.  Staff noted that a proposal that indicates the GPG Foundation-wide program announcement number [e.g., NSF 11-01] in the top line of the cover sheet and the appropriate NSF organization in the second line will be accepted anytime, although the program manager may determine there is a need to hold such a submission until the next regular competition. 

All the options have “tensions” or impacts on staff, investigators, reviewers, and logistics.  Additional complicating factors include multi-investigator proposals, multinational proposals, the Foundation’s goal to decide on a proposal within 6 months of receipt, and Congress’s tardy budget decisions: as of this OAC meeting OPP still did not have a budget for fiscal 2011, which began 1 October 2010.    

Further, it has been leveraged that the present peer review process is unsustainable because of its administrative load on staff and community.  A National Science Board task force on merit review, looking also at the broader impacts criterion, was to present a draft at the May 2011 NSB meeting.

The OAC decided to come back to these topics at later meetings.

Physical qualifications for polar research

Polar field work, far-flung and often remote from full-care facilities, mandates medical screening along with limitations, or prohibition, on travel if certain health deficiencies exist.  Since the start of the U.S. Antarctic Program, both the demographic (from young and male to older and male/female) and the screening have evolved.  A panel of Federal physicians meets annually to recommend changes.  And OPP is evaluating development of risk-based screening guidelines so that a person who will deploy for, say, a short stay at a station in summer might be evaluated differently from someone intending to work remotely for a month out of a tent or spend the winter.  Wintering candidates, since they will be isolated and confined on station for up to 8½ months, also undergo psychological screening.

Discussion led to the suggestion that OPP might better explain, perhaps on, the program’s purpose and characteristics, its waiver process, and recent or imminent changes.   The information will help investigators plan their proposals and select team members.  Wellness measures, such as labeling of ingredients and calories in the cafeterias, were suggested.  The validity of the exercise stress test was discussed, as was false disqualification of, say, a bodybuilder whose body mass index is found to be out of the ordinary.

OPP strategic vision document

In 2005 the National Science Board, responding to a Congressional suggestion, issued a 16-page 2020 Vision for the National Science Foundation, which says, in part, “The Board envisions a prosperous America that is powered by innovations flowing from the latest transformative scientific ideas with a workforce among the most scientifically and technically competent on the planet.”  Drawing from the Board’s vision and the Government Performance and Results Act requirement that agencies develop strategic plans setting forth missions, long-term goals, and means to achieve them, the Foundation in 2011 issued the 20-page Empowering the Nation Through Discovery and Innovation: NSF Strategic Plan for Fiscal Years (FY) 2011-2016.

With suggestions and a draft from the OAC, OPP is developing a much shorter strategic-vision pamphlet to explain NSF’s polar programs and complement the NSB and NSF documents.  The audience is visitors and others to whom OPP wishes to explain what it is, what it does, how it assesses its research investments, and how it measures success.  The work plan is to bring closure to the draft by the end of the November 2011 OAC meeting and then send the pamphlet to the designer and printer right away.  OAC and OPP will collaborate between now and then to finalize the text and select the illustrations.

OPP-supported education and outreach

In education and outreach, OPP works with the Foundation’s legislative and public affairs office, partners with EHR as noted in an item above, and cofunds (with EHR, GEO, and BIO) planning grants under the Climate Change Education Partnership program.  It operates the Antarctic Artists and Writers Program, collaborates with Greenland and Denmark in a Joint Science Education Project, funds placement of K-12 teachers with field research projects (PolarTREC), and supports the development of educational materials to supplement polar research projects.  Because OPP does not specialize in education, it is at its best supporting the science end of collaborations between science and education. 

A member asked about institutionalization or permanence of supported projects; examples of such include the online continuation of Ice Stories at the Exploratorium (San Francisco) for as long as the Exploratorium stays around, lesson plans developed by PolarTREC teachers, and repeated use of projects such as Polar Palooza and Polar Day.  OPP emphasized that it continues to encourage proposals for large science projects to include innovative and sustaining educational components.  OAC members noted that research proposals seem rarely to describe education and outreach in their prior results sections, but should. Reviewers should consider a PIs track record for following through on intended education and outreach activities as well as their quality and impact.

Conversation with NSF Senior Advisor Cora Marrett

Dr. Marrett stated that the Foundation’s Strategic Plan is in the process of being translated into more specific visions by its offices and directorates.  Three key goals are to transform the frontier (research and tools or infrastructure), to innovate for society through fundamental disciplinary work as well as focused interdisciplinary research, and to assure that NSF and all its components perform as a model organization.  The budget for 2011 falls short of what was sought, and even the 0.2 percent decreases for facilities and for staffing are felt because infrastructure is key to research progress and staff should be increased to meet challenges.  The integration of research and education is critical for National progress, and OPP advances have shown the way, but we still need to strive to know the kinds of activities that make a difference in providing genuine educational progress.  

Discussion topics included the evolving nature of the Ph.D., the nature of transformational research, innovation spending in other countries, the President’s goal for superior U.S. education and innovation, sustainability research, international collaboration, the need to improve the merit review procedure (both at NSF and in the international setting) while sustaining grant size, pros and cons of “drive-by outreach,” the desirability of showing education results from prior support in proposals, and the archiving and accessibility of data sets.

IceCube neutrino observatory completion

The $243-million NSF/MREFC (OPP + MPS) IceCube project (plus $35-million from Belgium, Germany and Sweden) was completed at the South Pole last season on budget and on schedule after seven seasons of work.  Eighty-six strings, each with 60 detectors, now are suspended deep in the clear ice sheet to detect and map source locations of extra-galactic neutrinos with a goal to increase understanding of the early universe.  The project met and overcame challenges along the way.  Lessons learned included appreciation that putting greater control of operations and logistics in the hands of the principal investigator was strongly positive; it increased flexibility so that, for example, when the cost of fuel rose the decision was made to pause drilling for a week in order to refine understanding of the freeze-back rate in holes.  This delay paid back dramatically with a reduction in fuel use from 8,000 to 4,500 gallons per hole.  NSF is in the process of capturing lessons learned from this complex and successful project as a model for other large construction projects. 

The project now is in its first 5-year research phase, with two wintering and five or six summer personnel in contrast with the scores during construction.  The project collects a terabit of data a day and transmits a tenth of it to Wisconsin, using 2/3 of the station’s bandwidth.  The community envisions at least 20 years of scientific utility; 95 percent of the detectors must stay operational for at least 15 years, and so far the array is on track for 97 to 98 percent.  Annual costs total about $13-million a year of which NSF is providing $7-million (operations) and $4-million (research grants).

NEEM and WAIS Divide ice core projects

Data from deep ice cores in Greenland and Antarctica have been transformative in revealing past climate and atmospheric constituents.  Differences in the timing of change in the two hemispheres will provide further understanding on how and why the planet responds to abrupt change.  In the 2010-2011 season the WAIS Divide core in West Antarctica, the complement to the earlier GISP2 core in Greenland, stopped at a depth of 3,331 meters (50 to 160 m off the bed to avoid any basal water).  When finished, the core will achieve the goal of a detailed record of atmospheric greenhouse gases over the abrupt climate change events of the last glacial period.  Annual layers should be well resolved over the last 60,000 years.  Next season will involve borehole temperature measurements and geophysics, which will determine the final safe depth, followed by borehole deepening and replicate coring at depths of particular scientific interest. 

The NEEM core in northern Greenland, completed to 2,537 meters in July 2010, reaches back into the Eemian, the last interglacial period, when average global climate was 2 to 3 C warmer than now, widely regarded as an analog to our climate a century hence.  This core, with the earlier NGRIP core, also from northern Greenland, provides a climate record back to 130,000 years ago and shows that Greenland contributed only 1.7 m to the total sea level rise of 7 to 9 m during the Eemian, implying that major ice loss must have occurred then in the only other large source, Antarctica, perhaps pointing a finger at instability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.  In 2011 the borehole will be deepened, shallow borehole temperatures will be logged, and a 400-meter core will be drilled.


On behalf of the Advisory Committee and the Office of Polar Programs, Dr. Erb stated that we owe Eric Salzman, retiring chair, a debt of gratitude.  Vigorous applause followed.  The meeting adjourned after Eric noted that at his first meeting the rising cost of fuel was an issue, then the price crashed, and now we’re back to $4 gas.  “Are we now more resilient?” he asked.


Abbreviations Used Throughout This Meeting




Biological Sciences Directorate, NSF


Cyberinfrastructure Framework for 21st Century Science and Engineering


Early Concept Grants for Exploratory Research, NSF


Education and Human Resources directorate, NSF


Geosciences Directorate, NSF


Greenland Iced Sheet Project 2


Grant Proposal Guide, NSF


International Polar Year, 2007-2009


Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate, NSF


Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction, NSF


North Greenland Eemian Ice Drilling


North Greenland Ice Core Project


National Research Council


National Science Board


National Science Foundation


Office Advisory Committee


Division of Ocean Sciences, NSF


Office of Polar Programs, NSF


Operational requirements worksheets (for Antarctic proposals)


Office of Science and Technology Policy


Principal investigator


Research vessel


Rapid Response Research, NSF


Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability


Small Grants for Exploratory Research, NSF (disused)


Support information package (for Antarctic proposals)


University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System


West Antarctic Ice Sheet

Last updated: 12/14/2011