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People walk into building.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
Members of the Blue Ribbon Panel, led by Norman Augustine, top of stairs, enter an automotive warehouse at McMurdo Station. The group of government, business and academic leaders visited USAP facilities as part of a process to develop a long-term vision to support research in the future.

Blue Ribbon Panel

Group think tank visits Antarctica to recommend long-term vision for USAP

Norman Augustine External U.S. government site has an idea about how the United States can retain its leadership in an era of increasing global economic competitiveness and budgetary turmoil. It’s a one-two punch philosophy advocated by many in the current administration, including President Barack Obama External U.S. government site.

“One is to fix our education system and two is greater investment in research,” said Augustine, former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp. External Non-U.S. government site who has held a slew of government posts over his career, many with a bent toward research and technological development, including chairman of the National Academy of Engineering External Non-U.S. government site.

It’s that passion for science and technology that has drawn him once again to Antarctica, where he and other government, business and academic leaders spent the first week of December visiting the research facilities and field camps maintained by the National Science Foundation (NSF) External U.S. government site, which manages the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) External U.S. government site. Augustine gave an interview to The Antarctic Sun External U.S. government site during the recent visit to U.S. Antarctic facilities.

In 2010, the NSF initiated a comprehensive review of the nation’s research operations on the southernmost continent in collaboration with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) External U.S. government site and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) External U.S. government site. OSTP advises the White House, while the OMB is the part of the executive branch that implements presidential policy.

People in red coats talk outside.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
Members of the Blue Ribbon Panel and NSF officials talk with McMurdo Supply Operations manager Mel Moore, right, about warehousing issues at McMurdo Station.

The process started when a committee under the National Research Council External Non-U.S. government site was tasked with examining future Antarctic research priorities, which led to a report called Future Science Opportunities in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean External Non-U.S. government site. The NRC is part of the National Academies External Non-U.S. government site, along with the National Academy of Sciences External Non-U.S. government site, National Academy of Engineering and Institute of Medicine External Non-U.S. government site. Together the Academies help shape national policies in their respective fields.

The NRC committee identified long-term research goals that should guide the USAP in the coming decades, calling for a balance between understanding Antarctica’s role in global climate processes and ensuring an emphasis on discovery and basic research. [See previous article Eye on the future: NRC panel recommends implementing Antarctic observation network.)

Now it’s the job of the USAP Blue Ribbon Panel External U.S. government site, chaired by Augustine, to wed the future demands of science with a robust and flexible logistics infrastructure. Augustine led a similar review of the USAP in the mid-1990s that helped pave the way for a new $150-million research station at the bottom of the world.

“We realize that predicting science is a hazardous business … It often proves to be wrong. The facilities here will long outlast the next generation of science,” noted Augustine while at McMurdo Station External U.S. government site where he and a half-dozen members of the panel had spent the previous day visiting buildings, workshops and warehouses.

Construction of McMurdo Station began in 1955 during a “golden age” of scientific discovery known as the International Geophysical Year External Non-U.S. government site. McMurdo was not originally intended to be a major scientific base in its own right, but to serve as an airfield for planes that would fly to the South Pole to establish a research station there the following year.

More than 50 years and dozens of structures later, McMurdo has grown into the largest research station in Antarctica, home to more than 1,100 people during the sun-filled summer months of October through February. At least one building in McMurdo dates back to the late 1950s.

Most of the research projects funded by the NSF and other federal science agencies flow through McMurdo, which is the gateway to field camps across the continent and still the launching pad to its more modernized, sister station at the South Pole. Augustine and the rest of the panel had an opportunity to visit the South Pole Station External U.S. government site for a day trip. He said it was satisfying to see what had only been a concept 15 years ago turn into reality.

“It’s such an improvement over the old station. … What a step forward,” said Augustine, making his fourth trip to the Ice.

People pose for a group photo.
Photo Credit: Laura Rip/Antarctic Photo Library
Members of the U.S. Antarctic Program Blue Ribbon Panel at McMurdo Station. They were escorted by National Science Foundation officials Brian Stone and Karl Erb. From left: Stone, Craig Dorman, Bart Gordon, Keith Harrison, Jerry Miller, Gerard Jugie, Duncan McNabb, Erb, Don Hartill and Norm Augustine.

But Augustine noted that the panel’s job is to take a holistic approach in analyzing the different pieces of the USAP, which costs about $265 million a year to operate, not including direct research dollars, which accounted for about $70 million in fiscal year 2011.

The USAP comprises McMurdo and South Pole, and a third research facility, Palmer Station External U.S. government site off the Antarctic Peninsula, focuses on marine and biological research. The Program also operates two research vessels and engages the U.S. military to provide logistical support in the air and on the sea, as well as private companies to operate helicopters and aircraft specifically designed to fly in the polar environment.

“They all impact each other; maybe there’s a saving here that will produce a big benefit somewhere else. I think it’s the big picture where there may be a lot of leverage,” Augustine said.

The panel got an opportunity to learn about the bits and pieces not just from touring facilities, field camps and airfields, but also directly from the support personnel and science community at McMurdo during an open meeting. A few themes emerged from the comments made by USAP participants : consolidation of warehouses, a centralized recreation center, and an emphasis on alternative energy.

“We have an incredible opportunity to do something very different in the way we generate power at this facility,” noted Blue Ribbon Panel member Keith Harrison, a former executive for more than 40 years at Procter & Gamble External Non-U.S. government site, a Cincinnati-based, Fortune 500 company, during the meeting.

“We’re united in believing that this could be — and should be — a place that could lead the way and be a demonstration site for a totally different way of thinking about power generation,” he added.

People ski away from large building.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
People ski away from the new South Pole Station, which was built after the last Blue Ribbon Panel review in the 1990s.

Augustine repeatedly lauded the workforce charged with managing the warehouses, driving the machinery, cooking the meals, and doing all the other tasks required to run what is basically a small town.

“We’ve been impressed with their competence and their ‘can-do’ attitude, particularly with their friendliness and hospitality,” Augustine said. “Everyone we’ve run into has been so helpful.”

The panel expects to make its report to the White House and NSF in 2012 after further visits at stateside USAP facilities and Palmer Station. Augustine conceded that the austere budget climate hanging over Washington makes it challenging to expect another project as ambitious as the South Pole Station to emerge in its recommendations. However, he said even difficult economic times don’t necessarily require cuts across the board.

An aeronautical engineer, Augustine likened the current economic climate to developing a new airplane that at first is too heavy to fly. Engineers may be forced to redesign or eliminate certain features, but there’s one thing they’ll never cut:

“Never did we solve the problem by taking an engine off,” Augustine said. “That’s the message here. … There are ways to reduce weight … but you don’t take the engine off. This place is one of the engines.”

Accompanying the panel were Karl Erb, director of the NSF’s Office of Polar Programs External U.S. government site; Brian Stone, director of OPP’s Antarctic Infrastructure and Logistics Division External U.S. government site; and Jerry Miller, assistant director, Ocean Sciences, in OSTP’s  Environment & Energy Division.

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs