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OPP Office Advisory Committee

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

November 9 - 10, 2009 Arlington, VA

Members Present: 

Andrea Lloyd (Chair), Biology, Middlebury College
Peter Cornillon, Oceanography, University of Rhode Island
Mark Engebretson, Physics, Augsburg College
Ben Fitzhugh, Anthropology, University of Washington (via telcon)
Gretchen Hofmann, Ecology, Evolution & Marine Biology, University of California,
Santa Barbara
Marika Holland, Oceanography, National Center for Atmospheric Research
Bernice Joseph, Education, University of Alaska, Fairbanks
John Kovac, Physics, Mathematics & Astronomy, California Institute of Technology
Marigold Linton (CEOSE Representative), University of Kansas
Eric Saltzman, Earth System Science, University of California, Irvine
Terry Wilson, Geological Sciences, The Ohio State University

OPP Senior Staff Present: 

Karl Erb, Director
Sue LaFratta, Senior Advisor/Policy, Analysis & Operations
Scott Borg, Director, Division of Antarctic Sciences
Simon Stephenson, Director, Division of Arctic Sciences
Will Colston, Director, Division of Antarctic Infrastructure & Logistics
Mike Van Woert, Head (Acting), Office of Polar Environment, Health and Safety


The Fall meeting of the Office of Polar Programs (OPP) Advisory Committee (AC) was held at the National Science Foundation (NSF) on November 9-10, 2009.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Drs. Karl Erb and Andrea Lloyd opened the meeting by welcoming everyone and thanking them for their participation.  Introductions were made, followed by approval of the minutes from the Spring meeting.

Dr. Mike Van Woert provided a Conflict-of-Interests briefing, advising members to speak with him if they have a conflict with any of the discussion items over the course of the meeting.

OPP Director’s Report

Erb provided the AC with updates on significant activities since the Spring meeting, briefly discussing operations under a continuing resolution for the beginning of FY 2010 and special focus areas for OPP such as climate change research and an experimental program within NSF to target transformational research.  He noted that activities associated with the competition for the Antarctic Support Contract were ongoing, with award expected by October 2010.  He discussed the status of USCG icebreakers, noting that increasing activities in the Arctic may influence which agency, NSF or the USCG, manages the budget for the polar icebreakers.  Planning for replacement of the ice-strengthened research vessels was mentioned, including current negotiations for replacement of the Laurence M. Gould and the eventual need to recompete the charter for the Nathaniel B. Palmer, due to expire in 2012.  He described actions by the International Maritime Organization to reduce environmental risk by changing the type of fuel used by ships in the Southern Ocean to a lighter grade.  This action, if implemented, will have implications for the resupply of McMurdo Station as there are currently no resupply vessels that can operate with the lighter fuel. 

Erb described a Memorandum of Understanding with the Department of Energy for collaboration on renewable and alternative energies for remote polar stations, as well as the upcoming dedication of the joint U.S./New Zealand Antarctic Programme wind turbine farm that is expected to provide all of the New Zealand base’s electricity needs and 10 percent of McMurdo Station’s.  He explained that planning for a study of U.S. Antarctic Program scientific directions and logistics needs was underway and described emerging international partnerships, legacies of International Polar Year, with Canada, France, and Greenland.  He noted the arrival of the first women at South Pole 40 years ago, and updated the AC on personnel changes within OPP.

American Reinvestment & Recovery Act

Erb provided the AC with a brief description of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act portfolio.  NSF received $3 billion in the legislation — 50 percent of its annual budget — for research grants, Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction, Major Research Instrumentation and Academic Research Infrastructure, and an increase in CAREER and IGERT awards and other activities within the Education and Human Resources Directorate.  OPP received $174 million for research and infrastructure improvements.  These funds nearly doubled the annual budgets for Arctic Sciences and Antarctic Sciences.  Statistics on the award portfolio were provided, including the number and percent of CAREER awards, awards to new Principal Investigators, and energy, climate, and transformative research awards.

Arctic Science Drivers

Setting the stage for strategic planning discussions, Mr. Simon Stephenson described the drivers for the Arctic Sciences Division in terms of NSF’s strategic plan:  discovery, learning, research infrastructure, and stewardship.  In addition to healthy foundational research in the social and natural sciences concerning elements of the Arctic system and thematic focus areas such as abrupt climate change, ocean acidification and warming tundra/permafrost, emphasis will be placed on modeling.  The Arctic Sciences Division will maintain the education and outreach program developed during International Polar Year and will begin a climate change education program while also broadening participation in its programs.  The Arctic Observing Network, cyberinfrastructure, instrumentation, and increasing energy efficiency are drivers for infrastructure investments.  Support for research community planning and dialogue with Arctic residents is also planned.  In the discussion led by Dr. Marika Holland, members recommended that "resilience," a discovery driver, specifically include both resilience of ecosystems and resilience of communities.  The committee asked about data systems and data system coordination, and OPP’s Dr. Dan Lubin explained that OPP has a unified data policy, requiring that data from awards be archived by the end of the award period.  Erb added that proposers to the IPY solicitation were required to include a data management plan in their proposals.  Holland, turning to other science driver questions, asked how programs such as SEARCH (Study of Environmental Arctic Change) help to set priorities.  Stephenson explained that the creation of AON, the Arctic Observing Network, was a direct outcome of SEARCH.  Cautioned that change is one component of Arctic research, Stephenson described a solicitation for OPERA — Organization of Projects on Environmental Research in the Arctic — that is intended to generate scientific creativity and action.  Turning to infrastructure and noting that communications is a driver for polar science, Erb asked the committee whether OPP should actively work with Canada and/or Russia on their plans to launch satellites that would provide polar coverage.  The committee encouraged OPP to do so.

Antarctic Science Drivers

Continuing with background for strategic planning discussions, Dr. Scott Borg provided the AC with discovery drivers for the Antarctic Sciences Division, including maintaining strong disciplinary science programs, further developing the system science program, and climate science.  The Antarctic Sciences Division is asking how Antarctica can best serve as a unique vantage point for high priority science in astronomy/astrophysics, solar-terrestrial or space science, and upper atmosphere winds/energy exchange and related processes.  The learning program is aligned with the Arctic Sciences Division for a polar approach, and includes the polar post doctoral fellowship program and the Antarctic Artists and Writers program.  Research infrastructure possibilities include a vessel to replace the Nathaniel B. Palmer when her charter ends in 2012, an airborne science platform, observation arrays and capabilities, an instrumentation program, future plans for the National Ice Core Laboratory, and cyberinfrastructure.  The Division is working to broaden perspectives by strengthening ties to other NSF programs, to international and other agency programs, and by increasing the use of Intergovernmental Personnel Act appointments.  Community planning is also a priority, as is broadening participation in Antarctic research. The committee’s discussion focused on ways to facilitate collaboration within the Antarctic research community, with some members favoring a top-down approach and others a bottoms-up approach.

Update on OPP’s Polar Environment, Health & Safety Activities

Van Woert provided an overview of the Office of Polar Environment, Health & Safety, including staffing; activities such as Antarctic Conservation Act enforcement, environmental studies and permitting; medical standards and waivers with advice from a medical panel; and polar safety including field and occupational safety, diving safety, and food safety.  He also described two recent incidents and the review process that was followed. 

Lloyd, who moderated this session, introduced the topic of medical guidelines for breast cancer following questions from two Antarctic researchers who questioned whether the guidelines were inconsistent with current medical practice and differentially affected women.  Lloyd suggested that the AC recommend to OPP that its medical panel update the guidelines to better reflect current medical practice and to look at how risk is assessed.  Erb explained that the guidelines are less driven by public health goals than by safety goals and thus risk is approached differently.  For example, the medical standards for winter-over personnel are more stringent than for summer deployments.  Nonetheless, the medical panel has a standing charge to continuously review the guidelines and standards to ensure they are consistent with current medical practice. 

Strategic Planning Goals and Motivation

The committee engaged in a discussion of the motivation for and goals of a strategic plan for OPP.  Points raised included a need to discuss how science planning is done and, although this document is not intended to set scientific priorities, it should explain how priorities are set.  The geographic and conceptual scope of the plan need to be established.  The plan should also address the type of leadership OPP should provide and how to engage under-represented groups and broaden participation. 

An example of a structure was offered: 

  1. The need for polar research,
  2. The community provides the genius, the developmental ideas, but
  3. You need infrastructure to support the genius, and
  4. The capacity to deliver graduate students, etc. 

Additional points were raised regarding the format of the plan, including length and audience, and whether to use outside consultants.   The AC thought the document needed to be developed by an entity external to OPP, but that input from OPP program officers would be a necessity.  Erb agreed and will provide the AC with information related to prior strategic planning efforts and workshop reports.

Committee of Visitors Reports

Antarctic Sciences.  Dr. Terry Wilson, the AC liaison to the Committee of Visitors (COV), provided an overview of major points from the draft COV report.  The report concluded there is no evidence that proposals are declined for logistical reasons, representing an improvement from the last COV report, but that time-to-decision appears to be getting longer.  The COV felt it was unable to answer questions regarding reviewer demographics due to a lack of information.  The COV also noted an apparent low success rate for female investigators.  The draft COV report includes a recommendation for the AC to review OPP’s data policy.  Regarding joint questions with the Antarctic Infrastructure & Logistics Division, the COV found a need for strategic planning to align research with science support needs and, to address dwindling budgets, questioned whether resources should be scaled back or for there to be more cooperation with international Antarctic partners and other federal agencies. 

Antarctic Infrastructure & Logistics/Polar Environment, Health & Safety.  Dr. Mark Engebretson, the AC liaison to the COV, provided an overview of major points from the draft COV report.  The COV noted exemplary collaboration between the Antarctic sciences and logistics divisions.  The COV questioned whether science projects may not push the envelope in terms of logistical risks.  The COV recommended that future COVs focus on projects that have completed at least the field portion instead of looking at the same jackets that the sciences division COV reviews.  A review of documentation showed a weakness for projects involving the research vessels as compared to other types of support. The COV suggested that the science division might provide more funding for project-specific logistics.

Arctic Sciences.  Dr. Ben Fitzhugh, the AC liaison to the COV, provided an overview of major points from the draft COV report.  The COV review was very favorable in many areas.  Concerns included the feeling that panel reviews were less informative than ad hoc reviews and a trend toward increasing dwell time.  The COV found good support for young PIs and members of under-represented groups, but perceived a decline in support for the "bottoms-up" generation of new research initiatives.  The COV found the Research Support & Logistics program well managed but found it difficult to evaluate because actions were not linked to proposals and awards.  The COV suggested that the division plan for an increase in proposals due to the high profile of climate change in the Arctic, and wondered whether glaciology is effectively supported by the division.

USAP and International Antarctic Programs:  Cooperative Logistics & Infrastructure

Mr. Brian Stone provided the AC with information on forms of international cooperation, including facilitating research collaboration, project level collaboration, and Memoranda of Understanding/Agreement for large-scale support.  He described specific examples, such as the agreement to use the Swedish icebreaker Oden for science and for operational icebreaking, the AGAP research project for which the U.S. is providing aircraft and field camps and equipment, with Germany, Japan, the UK, Australia, and China providing various additional resources such as funding, fuel, and waste removal.  He provided information on the U.S./Australia logistics exchange under which the U.S. Antarctic Program receives Airbus A-319 flights in exchange for LC-130 flights to Australia’s Casey Station, the U.S./New Zealand cooperative logistics pool, including the recent joint project to install wind turbines on Ross Island, and a logistics exchange with the Italian Antarctic Program.  Dr. John Kovac led the AC’s discussion, noting that most of the logistics agreements are “quid-pro-quo” in nature and that there are opportunities for collaboration involving expensive infrastructure, such as satellites for communications.

Communications and Transportation Challenges

Stone informed the AC of recent developments in communications at South Pole Station,   including the failure of NASA’s TDRSS "Flight 1" or F1 satellite for file transfer capability and the possibility of acquiring SkyNet 4C (a satellite owned by the U.K.’s Department of Defense).  Plans to test the capability of the satellite to "see" South Pole are progressing.  If successful, the division will look at building the required earth station.  SkyNet 4C would provide communications through approximately 2019.  In the area of transportation, the ground traverse now has the capability of delivering approximately 1 million pounds of cargo.  As noted by an AC member, introducing robotics to the traverse would reduce operating costs and is being examined.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Strategic Planning

Dr. Eric Saltzman led this session, and began by outlining notes from the AC’s Spring meeting.

Elements of a strategic plan for OPP could include, among other things:

  • future scientific directions/drivers, including a prioritization process for determining which opportunities to pursue;
  • data management, referring to new data but also to preserving legacy data and keeping data in a useful form;
  • research platforms, including fixed infrastructure and vessels, recognizing that working at the polar frontier in certain disciplines requires certain infrastructure and the need to balance organic capabilities with reliance on international partners;
  • prioritization process for infrastructure investments, flowing from the scientific drivers and directions, that can be applied in both good and bad budget times;
  • "stewardship", including sustainability, energy, etc.

Types of documents were also discussed:  one that describes mechanisms and what has and has not worked, or one that outlines the principles that guide OPP. 

A visitor suggested that OPP’s strategic plan should help the nation address critical areas by reference to NSF’s mission and vision.  Erb explained that NSF is not a mission agency, and with too much "top-down" direction there is the risk of losing the interest of the research community.  At the same time, assessments such as the Snow-Water-Ice-Permafrost Assessment and the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment drew more heavily on NSF-supported scientists than any other agency.  NSF has created resources for policy-makers, and perhaps it is sufficient for this to continue, or perhaps NSF should be doing more – organizing science planning activities and collaborating more with other federal agencies to guide where research needs to  be done. An AC member pointed out that some of the efforts that have been organized, such as the Arctic System Science freshwater program, have resulted in communities talking to each other that otherwise wouldn't have.  Erb said he hopes this type of discussion will be included in the strategic plan.  Another member suggested that differences between the poles should be recognized.  For example, the Arctic has economic and population issues, with the involvement of many agencies.  In the Antarctic, there are no indigenous peoples but there is the Antarctic Treaty. 

Members suggested that it would be possible to outline thematic elements for which OPP is in a position to lead, such as climate change and ocean acidification.  Another question that needs to be answered is where OPP draws the line, whether it be at 60 degrees or at polar processes.  Erb explained that in the Antarctic, the "old" mission was to do research that can only be done or can best be done in Antarctica, but perhaps a better way to characterize it now would be in terms of sea level rise:  if sea level rises by 1 meter, 7 million people would be displaced and so we need to fund the research to predict sea level rise.

Regarding process, Erb identified himself and Mr. Guy Guthridge to work with an AC subcommittee consisting of Saltzman and Drs. Gretchen Hofmann, Bernice Joseph, and John Kovac.  Saltzman suggested that the subcommittee could give some thought to the high level areas that the plan would cover and organize an outline which could then be used to determine what additional expertise might be needed.  Saltzman agreed with earlier suggestions that the plan be developed by an external entity, although input from program officers would be necessary.  It was decided that the subcommittee members and the OPP personnel who plan to attend the American Geophysical Union meeting will meet in San Francisco and that prior to this meeting an outline for a discussion would be developed. 

Decisions regarding whether to bring in a facilitator and whether funding would be available for this effort will be discussed at the Spring meeting. 

Integration of Research and Education

Joseph moderated this session in which Drs. Martin Jeffries and Lisa Clough described the education programs within NSF as well as the programs that OPP participates in.  For example, in the formal education area, OPP funds ADVANCE and CAREER proposals as well as a Polar Postdoctoral program.  OPP also funds graduate, undergraduate and K-12 activities, such as PolarTrec, a project that teams teachers with researchers in the field.  In the informal education area, OPP provides funds for media visits and exhibits, and sponsors an Antarctic Artists and Writers Program.  During IPY, OPP participated in two education solicitations, with 23 projects funded. Beginning in FY 2010, OPP has pledged $1.5 million to a new NSF education program on climate change.

Lloyd said she received a letter stating that OPP does not fund CAREER proposals, and pointed out that the presentation showed that only 2 of 15 CAREER proposals were funded. Clough explained that there has not been a groundswell of CAREER proposals, and that OPP could try to encourage these proposals.  Another member asked about data on career outcomes for the Polar Postdoctoral program.  Although the “n” is not very large, OPP will provide a list of award recipients and attempt to determine where they are now as well as at their funding profiles and publications.    

Response to Advisory Committee Letter

Erb provided an update to the AC on recommendations it raised following the Spring meeting.

Data:  Proposers are required to address data management in their proposals, and program officers will insist on data archive statements in final reports.  OPP brought forward the AC’s suggestion of a change to NSF’s Grant Proposal Guide to the larger agency-wide working group.   A suggestion made by the NSF working group was to base implementation requirements on domain practices – each of the NSF directorates and offices is a domain and in the past have had different practices.  A concern within NSF is how grants officers would react to having to certify proposals and final reports with many different standards. 

Logistics:  Erb noted that OPP understood the AC to mean not "overseeing" logistics but rather developing a group that champions the continuing development of technology and otherwise advances OPP’s ability to support research needs. With the Antarctic Infrastructure & Logistics management team fully in place, it is time to look in a sustained manner at better ways to do business.  OPP had described to the AC a Memorandum of Agreement with the Department of Energy, for example, and agreements with other federal agencies and organizations that assist OPP.  What OPP has not always had the ability to do is to follow-up on recommendations.  Erb suggested that the AC would find it useful to have OPP staff provide information on how we use other federal agencies, contractors, etc., to assist OPP, and that a presentation on how we work with others would be useful for the AC and the community.  A presentation on identification and implementation of technological advances in the communications arena will be scheduled for the Spring meeting.

Carbon and Energy Footprint:  Erb indicated that measuring the carbon footprint is an easy thing to do because the data exists, but that it is a matter of making the time to perform the analysis.  The "skunk works" group that was suggested would do the analysis and it should be possible to present this information at the Spring meeting.

Defining High-Risk/High-Reward Research Criteria

Dr. Marigold Linton opened this topic by reminding AC members of the discussion at the Spring meeting that included the results of a study that showed that we do not have a good way to identify creative — or high-risk — research.  Borg provided the AC with NSF’s definition and the funding commitment made by NSF in the FY 2010 budget of $2 million per research division for this type of research.  Within OPP, program directors embrace the concept of high-risk/high reward research in their programs, but asked the AC how to educate the reviewer and panelist community on the concept.  Borg and Stephenson discussed how they might target the $2 million per division, and asked the AC for ideas — e.g., as an incentive fund, or to highlight 2, 3 or 4 awards.  Erb explained that NSF’s director is interested in seeing how the various divisions deal with the concern on the part of the National Science Board, reviewers, and panelists that NSF is too conservative and reluctant to fund potentially transformative research.  The AC asked what the reward is if it works, and discussed potential barriers to making it work and ways to overcome those barriers. While it may be difficult in the near-term, the individual experiments within NSF will create the database that will enable review in the future.

Meeting with NSF Director and Deputy Director

The AC was joined by NSF Director, Dr. Arden Bement, and Deputy Director (Acting), Dr. Cora Marrett.  Erb began by thanking Lloyd for her outstanding service and leadership of the AC, and thanked Saltzman for agreeing to chair the AC for the next year. 

Following introductions, Bement advised the AC that NSF’s FY 2011 budget was under review by the Office of Management and Budget.  He reported having heard positive feedback from many universities regarding the impact NSF’s American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funding made on their ability to retain faculty and attract students.  NSF was able to spend $9 billion in ARRA and regular appropriations in approximately 4.5 months.

The committee engaged with Bement and Marrett on data, including new policies NSF might implement to ensure data archiving and also what steps NSF could take to ensure the data is available 10, 20, and 30 years from now.  Bement noted that open access to data is a first-order principle for NSF.  As the volume of data skyrockets, there are issues of archiving, dissemination and mining, who will manage the repository, who owns the data, and the rules of engagement. 

An AC member noted that everything is going faster — research, communication, and publishing — but that NSF’s review process still takes the same amount of time.  Bement responded that as proposals become more complex because of their multidisciplinarity, the time required for proper review increases and workload pressure also increases.  While there are things NSF could do to shorten the review period, they would take additional personnel.  The AC pointed out that a recent COV was concerned over the increasing workload for program officers.  Marrett responded that staffing has not increased to the desired levels, and NSF is developing workload models to justify requests for additional personnel.  She noted that NSF needs the community to help better articulate the need and for scientists and engineers to be willing to come to NSF for temporary appointments.    

Turning to alternative and renewable energies, the AC noted it is impressed with OPP’s efforts and asked what NSF is doing.  Bement reported that NSF is increasing its investments in clean energy research and a program aimed at informing the public about clean energy and climate change.  In addition, new content is being incorporated into curricula at every level of education so that students, especially those pursuing STEM careers, can develop a broader understanding of the issues.  The most important thing NSF can do is to reduce the use of diesel fuels in the Arctic and Antarctic through wind, solar, etc.  Every agency will appoint a sustainability officer whose function will be to improve energy usage.  Bement noted that the Arctic and Antarctic activities will be highlighted. 

Wrap-up and Adjourn

There being no additional items for discussion, Lloyd summarized points brought out during the meeting for follow-up by OPP and the AC:

  • OPP will request that the medical panel review the guidelines related to breast cancer;
  • Lloyd will circulate a draft tasking to the AC subcommittee formed to develop a strategic plan for OPP; and,
  • Lloyd will communicate with the COV Chairs regarding finalizing their COV reports.

In closing, Lloyd thanked the AC and OPP for the challenges, integrity, and creativity that marked her four years on the AC.


Acronyms used throughout this meeting:

Acronym Title
AC Advisory Committee
COV Committee of Visitors
NSF National Science Foundation
OPP Office of Polar Programs
PI Principal Investigator